Archive for April, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #12

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Chapter 2:  Why Some Societies Progress, Others Regress

Culture As Society’s Genes

Culture is to society what genes are to an individual.  Culture forms the framework for development for a society, both under normal circumstances but also more importantly, under differing and stressful conditions.  Likewise, our genes predict our eye and skin colors, as well as our reactions to specific environmental conditions, as for example, our propensity to develop specific diseases under certain conditions.  Culture does that for a society, as exemplified by the response of the Marioris to the invasion by the Maoris.  Just like genes, culture is transmitted from one generation to the next, and it remains remarkably stable with each generation transmitting its values to the next through the process of acculturation.  In traditional societies, such acculturations take place informally in the family and other social settings; in modern societies, at schools and similar institutions.

Changes in genes, or more accurately the distribution of the changed gene in a population, do occur through natural selection, but very slowly.  Likewise with culture, changes do occur but very slowly as evidenced by the subsequent divergent cultural transformations of the Marioris and the Maoris conditioned by their particular environment.

The environment can induce rapid changes on DNA through a process call mutation.  Two well know mutagenic (mutation-inducing) agents are radiation and chemicals.  A colony of bacteria subjected to a hostile chemical environment (antibiotics) will develop resistance quickly through such mutations which enable those bacteria to overcome the effects of those chemicals.

Many would take umbrage to my characterization of culture as society’s genes, for that implies that culture cannot be changed, or at least not quickly.  There is the implication of predestination, just as individuals are biologically through their genetic endowment, so too is society through their culture.  Culture is thus destiny.  This is erroneous.  For just as genes could be changed in nature through random mutations or artificially in the laboratory through planned biogenetic engineering, so too could culture, either naturally or be induced.

The cultural equivalent of biogenetic engineering would be mass education and the introduction of modern technology, or any major social change imposed on or brought on in a society.  The fermentation in the Muslim world today is because its traditional societies have been changed through their exposure to the greater outside world through mass education and modern communications.  Old certitudes are now gone, as are traditional power structures.  These changes are rapid and disorientating; they could lead either to a stronger, more resilient society (equivalent of a resistant bacteria) or alternatively, to the disappearance and disintegration of that culture (equivalent to biological extinction, as with the dinosaurs).

The cultural equivalent of random mutation would be exemplified by the sudden change in leadership or a revolution.  Iran under Ayotallah Khomeini was a radically different nation from when it was under the Shah.  That transformation was sudden and unpredictable, comparable to a biological mutation.  Had someone assassinated the Ayatollah soon after he took over, Iran would have been radically changed back again.  In genetics, such a phenomenon is referred to as reverse mutation.

The pertinent question then is why certain societies have cultures that predispose them to change and progress while others have cultures with strong inertia and a tendency for stagnation.  Here I define human progress broadly, that is improvements in the ability of that society to take care of the basic needs of its citizens in terms of food, clothing, and shelter, as well as ensuring that each citizen is allowed to develop fully in all aspects.

Such general descriptions aside, there are specific quantifiable criteria that can be used to assess progress or lack thereof.  These include economic well being as reflected by such indices as per capita income but also general well being as measured by longevity and infant mortality rates.  While these may not be truly reflective of the achievements of a particular society, nonetheless they give a rough indication.  It is unlikely that a nation with a low per capita income, short life span, and high infant mortality to be considered developed or progressive.  Nor can one expect such societies to be major sources of inspiring works of arts and other cultural refinements.

Implicit in my definition and description of progress is that there are certain values that are universal, that is, they are the aspirations of all people.  This is a risky proposition to make in these days of cultural relativism where the accepted wisdom is that all cultures are equal and should be measured only within its own context.  Even the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights has its own detractors who opposed the very concept of the universality of any social or cultural construct.  Nonetheless we all can agree on certain simple ideas.  These are, as enumerated by Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington in their book, Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress:

  • • Life is better than death
  • • Health is better than sickness
  • • Liberty is better than slavery
  • • Prosperity is better than poverty
  • • Education is better than ignorance
  • • Justice is better than injustice.

Even Mother Teresa would have agreed with those general statements.  Fanatical Muslims of the “suicide bomber” variety might take exception to the first sentiment (Life is better than death”).  To them, life in this world is temporary and thus not worthy of their attention; the greater rewards are in the hereafter.  To me, belittling God’s precious gift of life is not exactly an expression of our respect and honor for the All Mighty.  After all, life is God’s creation and we should not dismiss it lightly!  Were Islam to belittle life in this world, there would not be the strong prohibition against suicide in our Qur’an.  If only those so-called martyrs could see the pain and anguish they caused their loved ones, and the destruction they inflict on others!

I do not imply that material and socioeconomic progress go hand in hand with spiritual and ethical enlightenment.  Far from it!  Societies in command of great wealth and power may be intellectually, spiritually, and socially flawed.  Conversely, great philosophers and thinkers have evolved from societies that had rudimentary technology and relatively little wealth.  The tiny Caribbean island of St. Lucia, no economic powerhouse, produced two Nobel Prize winners:  Sir Arthur Lewis in economics and Derek Welcott in Literature.  Using that criterion – number of Nobel laureates per capita – St. Lucia is certainly far ahead of many advanced and progressive nations.

In the heyday of imperialism it was accepted that culture made all the difference.  The concept of culture then was closely tied to race.  As with the understanding of race at the time, it was accepted that there was a similar evolutionary scale for culture, with the Europeans, more specifically the northern and western Europeans, being on top (or most cultured).  The differences in the physical features of people of the various cultures (dark skin for the Mediterranean races and high cheek bones of the Eastern Europeans) further reinforced this connection between race and culture.  At the bottom were Asians and Africans.  The Europeans being the most “cultured” were destined to rule the world; if members of the other races wanted to be considered civilized, they must ape the ways of the Europeans.

The German anthropologist Franz Boas shook this accepted wisdom with his revolutionary concept of cultural relativism.  Boas spent his professional career studying the Eskimos of Artic Canada, and was impressed by their cultural values.  Their culture ideally suited them to survive in that harsh environment where “cultured” Europeans would not stand a chance.  He championed the idea that each culture should be judged in its own right and not compared to others.  The essence of this idea is encapsulated by the remarks of the legendary wealthy American stock investor, Warren Buffet.  When asked of his extraordinary talent (his ability to pick undervalued stocks), he replied that he is grateful to live in America as his particular skills serve him well, for had he lived in Bangladesh, he would be starving.  The wisdom of the Sage of Omaha!

Cultural relativism may be a fine idea when societies were isolated.  With globalization, today’s young Eskimos are exposed to and are rapidly becoming part of the larger world.  Their grandparents may have been satisfied with living in igloos and trudging along in the frigid cold on their dog sleighs, but today’s young prefer living in homes with central heating and dashing around in their snowmobiles.  Telling them that those are artifacts of a decadent Western culture would not dissuade them.

Likewise, it is equally futile for Malaysian leaders to discourage the young not to spend their time on the Internet, Twitter and Facebook because those were “western” inventions, as Minister of Information Rais Yatim did recently.  It is to be noted that Rais is enamored with his camera and cell phone; he conveniently forgets that those too are “western” inventions.

While nobody today accepts the old concept of an evolutionary scale of culture, nonetheless it is becoming obvious that different societies adapt differently to changes and stresses.  Like individuals, some societies are more successful than others, regardless of the criteria we use to define success.  The intellectual inquiry of why this is so is now an active and legitimate scholarly pursuit.  Unlike earlier notions of cultural evolution, today’s research has nothing to do with aggrandizing one’s sense of cultural or racial superiority, rather on how best to help societies and cultures cope with change and thereby reduce some of the social pathology associated with dysfunctional cultures.

Next: “Progressive” Versus “Static” Cultures

Genuine Obsessions With Fake Qualifications

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Genuine Obsessions With Fake Qualifications

M. Bakri Musa

The kerfuffle over the college credentials of Kamalanathan a/l P. Pancanathan, the Barisan candidate in the recent Ulu Selangor by-election, reveals less of the man but more on our fascination with paper qualifications. This obsession with credentialism is an intellectually lazy way to judge someone; you let those papers and certificates do it for you.

Who cares if you have a doctorate from Oxford, for if you cannot speak and read our national language then you have no business to be in Parliament or the state Assembly, where bills are debated and businesses conducted in Malay. You cannot possibly be effective if you are not fluent in that language.

At the same time with Malaysia inextricably linked with the greater world and English being the global language, our legislators and others who presume to lead us should be equally facile in that language. Anything less and they would not be serving us – their clients – honestly and honorably.

I do not expect average citizens, least of all potential political candidates, to appreciate or acknowledge this reality. However, I do expect party leaders, both in Barisan and Pakatan, to be fully cognizant of this and to factor it heavily in their selection of candidates.

At one level it is amusing that we should still be obsessed with college degrees. With higher education now available to an increasingly larger segment of society, declaring that you are a college graduate would today elicit at best feigned interest, expressed in between yawns. The exception would be if you were to graduate from Oxbridge or an Ivy League. That would definitely draw some attention, at least initially, even in the most sophisticated circles.

If after a few minutes of conversation it turns out that your association with those august colleges was merely attending one of their culup (“quickie”) courses, then whatever impression you may have created initially would rapidly vanish. Actually you need not reveal whether you are a genuine product or not, the content of your conversation would be a sufficient differentiator. Less than a minute into Barack Obama’s and Sarah Palin’s speeches and you could readily tell who is the product of an Ivy League and who is from the local community college.

Both Obama and Palin attract huge crowds with their captivating oratory. In deciding who to vote for however, we should go beyond their academic pedigrees and flourishes of their speeches to seeing the clarity of their vision, weighing the substance of their ideas, and judging the effectiveness of their leadership.

At another level, despite our unabashed nationalism and pride in everything local as expressed in such jingoism as “Malaysia boleh!” there is still this obsession with everything foreign, especially university parchment papers. Again here, that says more on the state of our local universities than the regards we have of foreign ones.

I was not surprised that Kamalanathan could earn his Australian degree without ever setting foot on that continent, let alone on the campus. In these days of on-line courses and “distance learning,” there is nothing unusual about that. If anything those are significant improvements over the old correspondent courses.

The more significant – and disturbing – revelation is this. Although he attended the local Olympia College (its academic director confirmed that) to get his Australian degree via “twinning,” the college no longer has his academic records. I graduated over four decades ago, despite that I could still retrieve (if I am so inclined) from my alma mater my transcript, including my freshman English grades. Kamalanathan had his degree barely six years ago, and already his college has purged his academic records.

As mentioned, this controversy reveals more about local institutions than it does of foreign colleges.

Vetting Candidates

Higher education has not been spared the invasion and innovation of modern technology. At the criminal plane, with digital technology I could easily reproduce those impressive diplomas, complete with original signatures, intricate seals, and those fancy Latin phrases and dates. That makes it even more difficult to ascertain the veracity let alone quality behind those certificates.

At the legitimate level, modern technology has radically altered the manner of teaching and delivery of instructional materials. Today I can in the comfort of my living room listen to the same lectures given to those undergraduates at MIT. My continuing professional education is increasingly being delivered through “webinars,” CDs, and other multimedia modules.

With the greater appreciation and subsequent growth of “non-traditional learning,” the task of evaluating the quality of college credentials becomes even more complicated. The boundaries between blatant degree mills, virtual colleges, on-line courses, “external” degrees, and the traditional “board and mortar” campuses are becoming more difficult to ascertain.

In my profession where such decisions could have literally life and death consequences, we have gone beyond merely ascertaining the validity of those pieces of papers to contacting directly the issuing institutions and getting attestations on what those certificates actually signify. Failure to truthfully disclose could expose those institutions to both civil and criminal liabilities.

The problem with Kamalanathan could have been resolved had a non-governmental organization concerned with the conduct of honest election for example, queried that Australian university on whether he was a legitimate student. Indeed the problem would not have arisen at all had Barisan leaders verified the matter before selecting him. Had those leaders institutionalized the practice, they would have been spared the embarrassment of picking a disbarred lawyer as their election candidate, as had happened recently.

This vetting of candidates is tough and tricky. Even when everything seems clear and legitimate, we could still have difficulty detecting fraudulent applicants.

I was on the selection committee to fill a senior position at our hospital. On perusing the resumes of the short-listed applicants, one stood out – impressive undergraduate degree from a leading university and a prestigious MBA. She also stood out in the interview; articulate and well informed. When my turn came, I congratulated her on her MBA and then innocently inquired whether she had taken any classes from a certain star professor at her school, and if so, could she share her experience. I must have hit something for she became flustered and began fanning her suddenly reddened face with her hand.

“I… I,” she stuttered, “did not get my MBA from that Columbia!”

Her interview went rapidly downhill from there. At the end of the session, the committee went over her application carefully to see where we had slipped. Indeed her resume clearly stated, “1997 – MBA (Columbia),” and she had duly submitted a copy of her diploma in which it was equally clear that her Columbia was not the one in New York City. The mistake was obviously ours, in making the leap in assumption after perusing only her resume.

The sad part was that her undergraduate degree and her experiences were impressive enough and would have been sufficient for her to be the top choice. By needlessly embellishing her qualifications, she doomed her prospects. As can be further noted, this urge to inflate one’s resume is not confined only to the academically unsophisticated.

Then there is the other end of the spectrum. A while back an accomplished young Malaysian returned from an interview in Malaysia for a position with one of the GLCs without bothering to wait for the results. He decided after the encounter that he did not wish to risk his future to a company whose CEO and Board Chair could not tell the difference between the Stanford of Palo Alto and the local Stamford College.

I am less concerned with a two-bit politician trying to hoodwink simple villagers with his inflated resume. I am more perturbed that our top leaders too could easily be taken in. Within UMNO alone, there are quite a few senior leaders including chief ministers sporting the title “Dr.” They are not physicians, dentists or veterinarians, because for those professionals there are statutes governing the use of that title so as not to confuse the public. Not so for those with other doctorates, legitimate or otherwise.

There are many foreign degree mills, with three or four focusing almost exclusively to aspiring Malaysian politicians and corporate figures. The recipients are not even embarrassed; on the contrary they go out of their way to showcase their ‘achievements’ through paid self-congratulatory messages to celebrate their ‘graduation.’

One UMNO leader publicly bragged about having a doctorate from Preston University. When he pronounced it, he made sure that it sounded like Princeton, the Ivy League university in New Jersey, the academic home for Einstein and other luminaries. Meanwhile Preston, whose mailing address was somewhere in the prairies, offered degrees based on your “life experiences.” That ‘university’ had since left the Midwest after the state had a crackdown on diploma mills.

I would not have cared if this slimy character had managed to convince only the Mat Rempits and UMNO Putras of his pseudo academic prowess, but judging from the high praises he has been receiving from other top UMNO leaders, he has them duped too. That is the disturbing part.

Again as with the Kamalanathan controversy, this one tells us less of the “Preston PhD” character and more on our top UMNO leaders, and their genuine obsessions with fake qualifications.

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #11

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Chapter 2: Why Some Societies Progress, Others Regress

Culture Matters

Long before the Europeans were sending their sailors to explore the waters of the Orient, the Chinese were already regularly plying the same seas with their elaborate sailing junks. From 1405 and 1431 the Chinese had undertaken several maritime expeditions, venturing as far west as Madagascar, sailing in huge flotillas of about 300 vessels each.

Their ships were not mere junks; each measured in excess of 400 feet long and 160 feet wide, multi-decked, and capable of ferrying hundreds of personnel. They made Columbus’s 85-foot Santa Maria nothing but a lake dinghy by comparison. Those junks had grand staterooms, staggered masks, and tiered sails. They were the original luxury yachts, fit for the representatives of the Son of Heaven and their guests.

While the Europeans were exploring for trade opportunities, the Chinese were content merely to show their flag and collect tributes and gifts from the chieftains of the barbarians they encountered along the way. Having done that the Chinese returned home, convinced that there was nothing that they could learn from the uncivilized outside world. After Admiral Cheng Ho’s (Zheng He) last expedition, the emperor proclaimed an end to further naval expeditions. The huge infrastructures that enabled them to build those gigantic armadas were left to literally rot. The intricate skills of the people that went into building those magnificent seagoing vessels were now deemed worthless. The Emperor decreed that they had nothing to learn from the outside world and that theirs was the best kingdom on earth. Those explorations had merely reaffirmed their superiority.

The Europeans on the other hand were interested in the exotic spices of those distant lands and the opportunity of making a fortune in trading those spices. They could not care less for the tribute of trinkets and other gifts from the natives’ chiefs. Nor were they interested in hearing soothing praises for their “superior” ways and culture. Through those trades the Europeans became not only fabulously rich but also very powerful, which they later leveraged into colonizing those lands. The British gobbled up the entire South Indian subcontinent plus parts of South East Asia; the Dutch, the bulk of the Malay Archipelago; and the Spaniards, the entire Philippine islands.

The obvious question is why such a dramatic and consequential difference between the Chinese and Europeans? Why didn’t the Chinese with their impressive maritime fleet exploit their superiority to colonize those countries? And why did they stop at the African coast and not venture beyond to discover Europe, or eastward across the Pacific to the New World?

After the termination of Cheng Ho’s expeditions, the entire Chinese maritime endeavor was shuttered on orders of the Emperor. It even became a crime for anyone to build ships! What was once China’s greatest asset was now considered a liability!

Volumes have been written analyzing this particular course of world history. In the end they essentially boil down to the fact that culture matters. By culture I mean the way of life, attitude, and value system of a society. That is, in the sociological sense and not in the popular meaning of the word that refers to the finer things in life.

The Chinese then had a mindset that they were the best; theirs was the Middle Kingdom, with the Emperor receiving his “Mandate from Heaven.” They considered the rest of the world primitive. They became arrogant at first and then insular for fear that those barbarians would contaminate the pristine ways of the Chinese. They became xenophobic. Their cultural milieu allowed a decision by the remote Emperor to become effective throughout the vast empire. The Emperor’s word was divine wisdom, to be unquestionably obeyed. He in his grand wisdom had declared that they could learn nothing from the outside world. It mattered not what Cheng Ho felt; after all he was a eunuch. As for trade, to the mandarins advising the Emperor, that activity was the most degrading, not worthy of even their consideration.

By contrast, in Europe there was no central powerful emperor to dictate to the continent. If the then big chief in Rome (the Pope) were to decree that all foreign explorations were sinful and against God’s order, that would not have dissuaded the Spaniards, Dutch, and British. (Well, the Spaniards being devout Catholics might tremble and seek repentance on their return, after they have made their fortune!) It was this decentralization of power that enabled small European nations to venture on their own, unencumbered by some central mandate.

To the Europeans, the outside world provided a sense of wonderment, an opportunity to trade and find riches. There were unknowns to be discovered and yes, also to be subjugated and conquered. The Europeans had no pretensions that they were the best; they had just emerged from the Dark Ages.

It was this culture or mentality of “We are the best!” that was so destructive to the Chinese. It is for this reason that I cringe whenever I hear or read Malaysian officials proclaim, for example, that our schools and colleges are the best; for implicit in that utterance is the accompanying mindset that says we have nothing to learn from others.

The decline of the great Islamic civilization and the invigorating intellectualism that went with it could be traced to the closure of the “Gate of Ijtihad,” (rational discourse) in the 10th century. Those Islamic leaders at the peak of their civilization had deemed that everything was settled, there was no need for further enquires. All that was required was for the ummah (community) to merely learn from the past and acquire the wisdom of their elders and ulama (scholars) – taqlid. Present-day Muslims have yet to escape the stranglehold of this medieval stricture.

This mindset of glorifying and embellishing the golden past is destructive. For one, those glorious days (if indeed they were) are long gone and for another, such obsessions distract us from facing present realties.

A hadith (a saying attributed to the prophet) to the effect that the best generation of Muslims were those of the prophet; the second best, the generation immediately following; and so on implies a fatalistic acceptance of an ever-declining mediocrity. The best that present-day Muslims can hope for is to reduce the slope of the decline. How pathetic! That is definitely not the recipe for advancement.

To me that hadith should be the inspiration for us to follow the exemplary ways of those first generations of Muslims, the seemingly insurmountable obstacles and great tribulations they overcame. We should indeed try to emulate those sterling qualities, especially those of the holy prophet and his closest companions (May Allah bless their souls). The best tribute that we can pay those early Muslims is for us (present day followers of the faith) to strive to be better than them. Nothing would please a master or a teacher more than to have his or her students reaching greater heights. We can never be better than the prophet – he was after all Allah’s choice – nonetheless in striving we will become better Muslims.

However, if we at the very outset set for ourselves a lower goal, then we will never excel. Why I read that hadith my way and not in the traditional manner is also a product of my upbringing and culture. Having been exposed to the rigors of Western scholarship and critical thinking, I am less likely to blindly follow dictates. As a Muslim, the greatest tribute I could pay Allah is to maximize the use of my God-given akal (intellect).

Living in the West I see how today’s generation being better than earlier ones: more tolerant, more generous, and more dynamic. Only those living in and accustomed to stagnant societies long for the “good old days.”

Economists are now discovering that the culture and institutions of a society are key determinants in development. These factors are not easily amenable to quantitative analyses that so fascinate modern practitioners of this science; hence the relative neglect on the role culture plays. Douglass North, the 1993 Nobel laureate in economics writes, “…Institutions and ideology together shape economic performance. Institutions…[do so] by determining (along with technology) the cost of transacting and producing.”

Culture defines the values and belief system of a society. There are two categories of values that are relevant: intrinsic and instrumental. The first refers to those that we subscribe to regardless of the costs or material benefits. Patriotism and religious beliefs fall into this group. We hold them dear regardless of the personal costs incurred. The instrumental values on the other hand, confer tangible benefits to the members of that society. Thus they are self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing, that is until the ensuing benefits are no longer there. I will illustrate the differences between these two values at the personal as well as societal level.

At the personal level, this is demonstrated by the attitude towards failure, for that in turn reflects the attitude towards risk taking and innovation. In Silicon Valley, California, a bankrupt businessman proudly displays his failures as a war hero would his battle scars, and then bravely moves on. In Malaysia, a failed entrepreneur is shunned, humiliated, and stigmatized. He would also be forever tagged as a failure, left to ruminate, and be caricatured as yet another example of the inadequacies of his race. His friends and relatives would chime in, “I told you so,” or “Should have stuck with his secure government job and enjoyed his pension,” or some such sentiments.

In Malaysia, starting a new venture is considered an instrumental value; it is valued only in so far as it is successful and brings in tangible benefits; in Silicon Valley, it is intrinsic, the prestige or reward is in creating the company. The creative act is the reward. Steve Jobs was immensely successful and accumulated lots of money with his Apple Computer. When he lost control of that company and with it his job, he could just as easily retire to enjoy his considerable wealth if he valued his venture as an instrumental one. Instead he went on to start yet another new enterprise.

If we exhort our young to study hard so they could be rich and successful, that is, as an instrumental value, then when they become successful they would stop learning. There is no more reason to; they are already successful. But if we present learning for its intrinsic values (to satisfy one’s curiosity or for self improvement) then they will continue studying even after they get their degrees. Indeed they would study even if they do not intend to go to college.

While I was in Malaysia researching for my first book, I was busy reading various articles and books. This prompted my nieces and nephews to ask whether I was studying for an examination! Obviously to them (and many Malaysians) the only time to read is when preparing for an examination.

Singapore’s leaders are now concerned that the younger generation, used to affluence, would lose their passion for hard work. Had their leaders preached the virtues of hard work for its creative potential and not in materialistic terms, the young would be more likely to internalize it as intrinsic and not instrumental value. Similarly if Malay leaders exhort Malays to work hard so we can “beat” non-Malays, than we value hard work for its instrumental value only. The danger with this is that once we beat (or fancy we did) or be on par with non-Malays, then we would quit our struggle. Or worse, our leaders would spend as much energy in suppressing non-Malays as they would helping Malays, because the value system is not in bettering themselves or the creative potential and rewards of hard work but simply to be ahead of or equal to non-Malays.

Next: Culture As Society’s Genes

The Labu and Labi Team of Najib and Muhyiddin (Last of Four Parts)

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

The Labu and Labi Team of Najib and Muhyiddin
M. Bakri Musa

[Last of Four Parts]

Salvaging Najib

There are many lessons that Najib could learn from his predecessors. The first necessary exercise however, would be for him to determine which leader he identifies with or resembles most.

One thing is certain: Najib is not his father’s son, neither politically nor intellectually. Najib also does not have his father’s personality or trait, in particular the Tun’s acute sense of probity and prudence. In persona, Najib lacks his father’s great presence; the late Tun Razak commanded instant respect. No one would dare crack a joke in his presence, not out of fear but of awe and respect. With Najib, he would probably join in with his own ribald riposte to an off-color joke by his colleagues or juniors.

In physique, Najib should have a commanding presence; after all he is much taller than his father, and broad-shouldered as compared to his father’s perpetual stooped posture. Alas your body-build would take you only so far.

The late Tun would never let his wife loose on extravagant shopping sprees. In his sympathetic biography of the late Tun, William Shaw described an exchange where the Tun’s children were instigating their father to install a swimming pool at Sri Perdana. The Tun would haven none of it. “What would the people say?” the Tun reminded his children. Najib never learned that important lesson from his father.

For sure Najib does not have Mahathir’s vision, charisma, or single-mindedness. Thus there is not much that Najib could learn from the mercurial Mahathir, no matter how hard the latter tries to influence Najib.

To me, Najib resembles the Tunku the most; smart enough to be accepted into a British university but not brilliant enough to have a transformational vision for his country. Najib’s attempt at having one – his now crumbling “1Malaysia” – proves more an embarrassment than inspiration.

Like Tunku, Najib has a fondness for the good life. I would not however, recommend that Najib pattern himself after the Tunku in this regard, like resorting to regular nightcaps. The cultural environment today is far less forgiving; it would be political suicide were Najib to indulge in such worldly pleasures. Pleasures of the flesh are more tolerable to today’s crowd than pleasures of the palate.

Very unlike the Tunku however, Najib is burdened by an overbearing spouse. With Tunku, Malaysians had a soft spot for his wife, the late Sharifah Rodziah. There was a good reason for that; she was humble, modest, and stayed in the background. She was the very antithesis of Rosmah.

Najib could usefully emulate Tunku in one respect, in having an able, young and brilliant deputy. That is, have his own Tun Razak. That someone should be like the late Tun, smart, competent, diligent, and not corrupt. That someone should also be satisfied if not actually enjoy wielding power in the background while letting the number one hogs the limelight and credit.

Tunku was only 52 when he became the country’s first leader, only a few years younger than Najib when he became prime minister. Tunku’s deputy, Najib’s father, was only 33. Like Tunku, Najib should groom someone young to be his deputy, a generation younger. He needs to cast his net far and wide, within and outside the party, to find fresh talent to entice into UMNO. He must be willing to gamble and take on those who are initially not sympathetic or even hostile to UMNO in the quest for his own Tun Razak. Who knows, by co-opting them into government they might just become UMNO members. The late Ghazali Shafie was not an UMNO member when Tun Razak brought him into his cabinet.

Najib should consider including in his team such individuals as Khairy Jamaluddin, even though I risk puffing up his already inflated ego. Khairy is not even half as smart as the late Tun, but then that is all UMNO has to offer these days. By specifically bringing in Khairy, Najib would be declaring that he is out of Mahathir’s shadow, or at least could not care less what he thinks. That would be quite a statement!

The danger is that unlike the late Tun, Khairy, apart from being not half as smart, is not content remaining in the background; he likes to hog the headlines. Khairy is also “damaged goods” because of his earlier overbearing ways while the under “protection” of his father-in-law, Abdullah Badawi. However, if a discredited politician like Nixon could be rehabilitated, so could Khairy.

As the search for his own Tun Razak would be slow and difficult, Najib needs to do something quick in the interim. First, he would have to dump Muhyiddin; he would of course still retain UMNO’s deputy presidency as he was elected to that position. To make that move palatable as well as lessen the repercussion, Najib would have to appoint someone with gravitas to replace Muhyiddin, someone who would command instant respect and credibility not only among Malaysians but also the world.

Fortunately UMNO has such a person in Tengku Razaleigh. Muhyiddin would not dare squeak if he were to be replaced by someone of undisputed integrity, competence, and stature as Razaleigh.

Early in Abdullah’s tenure I suggested that he should pick Razaleigh as deputy prime minister, but for a whole set of different reasons. Had Abdullah done that, his fate as well as Malaysia’s would be far different today.

If Najib were to be bold enough to dump his current deputy, he would accomplish many objectives simultaneously. One, he would certainly make all Malaysians take note. For another, he would reassert his leadership of the party. After all there is nothing in the party’s constitution to stipulate that the deputy leader should also be deputy prime minister. That is only a tradition. By boldly breaking the party’s hallowed practice, Najib is signaling his commitment to a new path, for his party as well as country.

Muhyiddin cannot be unceremoniously dumped; that would trigger a severe backlash and precipitate a leadership crisis. We are an Asian culture where ‘saving face’ is supreme. Thus instead of dumping Muhyiddin, Najib would have to sell the exercise as a ‘promotion’ for Muhyiddin – to undertake the more important and immediate task of ‘revitalizing’ UMNO. After all he heads the management committee to reform the party; that crucial job has yet to be completed. To further soften the impact, Najib would have to compensate the loss of Muhyiddin’s ministerial income by offering him a lucrative chairmanship of one of the GLC’s, like the Iskandar Development Project.

Najib should not be satisfied only with ‘promoting’ Muhyiddin; he should simultaneously radically revamp his cabinet by reducing the bloat and getting rid of the dead woods. I would begin with such old tired characters as Nazri, Rais, and Hishammuddin. Replace them with fresh young candidates.

All those ministers are tainted. If any were to squeak or in any way try to undermine his leadership, Najib could always unleash the MACC upon them. That ought to shut them up. We saw how quietly even the boisterous Rafidah Aziz went when Abdullah fired her. And he was a meek leader!

As deputy, Tengku Razaleigh would pose no political threat to Najib. Razaleigh would be focused on serving the nation; he is too senior to be involved in mere politicking or conniving to topple Najib. Together with Razaleigh, Najib could aggressively recruit fresh bright young talent into public service and revamp UMNO.

There is only a limited time window for Najib. If he were to delay revamping his cabinet till just before the election, that would be dismissed as political gimmickry. Then there is the UMNO leadership convention; if Najib were to delay making these changes, those dropped UMNO ministers would retain their clout and be re-elected. By removing them now, their influence would have waned come party election time.

These radical changes may be unpalatable to Najib and he may shy away from undertaking them, but then he has to ponder the consequences of his staying the course. At a minimum he risks becoming another Abdullah Badawi, except more pathetic. At worse, the battle between Najib and Muhyiddin would consume more than just the two. It would also take down UMNO, the RAHMAN prophecy coming true.

It is not enough for Najib to endlessly declare that he is “ready to make the difficult changes that Malaysia needs.” He needs to demonstrate that through his deeds, or as my old kampong folks would say, “Bikin saja, jangan cakap!” (Just do it, dispense with the hollering).

Najib and Muhyiddin may have bad karma and ill feng shui, but as practitioners of those ancient occult arts will tell you, those can be mitigated though appropriate actions. In short, Najib’s destiny lies in his own hands, on whether he is willing and capable of undertaking these much-needed radical changes.

If he does not, then it is time for voters to take actions. In P. Ramlee’s movie, Labu and Labi’s strict taskmaster Haji Bakhil would punish the pair by making them perform ketok-ketampi, a Malay version of humiliating pushups, every time they goof off. It is time for voters to make our political Labu and Labi perform their ketok-ketampi by booting them out at the next election.

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #10

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Chapter 2: Why Some Societies Progress, Others Regress

Next: The Economics of Geography

Modern economists can quantify the effects of geography on the economy. Jeffrey Sachs, now at Columbia University, introduced the concept of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) density, a function of per capita GDP and population density, and showed that coastal, temperate Northern-hemisphere economies have the highest economic densities. They form the core of the economic zones of the world. These areas include Western Europe, the coastal regions of China, Japan, Korea, and the Western and Eastern seaboards of North America.

Geography affects economic development in three major ways. First is through the ease of transporting goods, people, and ideas. Because water transportation is much cheaper and more efficient than overland, coastal areas have distinct advantages over the hinterland. Second, geography affects the prevalence of diseases, especially those involving vectors (malaria and mosquitoes; schistosomiasis and snails). These diseases are endemic in the tropics and hold back economic development by significantly reducing workers’ productivity. Malaysia’s remarkable economic progress is in part attributable to its success in eradicating or at least controlling vector-borne diseases, especially malaria. Such diseases also alter the country’s demographic and fertility patterns. Last, geography affects agricultural productivity. The seemingly lush tropical jungles hide a fragile thin layer of topsoil that could be easily washed away in a heavy tropical downpour. Soil erosion is a major ecological as well as agricultural problem in the tropics. The burden it imposes on the economy is severe.

Climate also affects the crops that can be grown. In temperate zones there is little specie variation in the fauna or flora. An acre of temperate forest yields only a few species; an acre of tropical jungle, literally thousands. Thus temperate lands are uniquely suitable for large and efficient mono cultural cultivations. The American Midwest has thousands of acres of wheat, barley, and corn. Such large farms would be impractical in the tropics as they would easily succumb to pests and diseases. The biological diversity of the tropics is an intricate and complex ecological protective mechanism preventing the spread of pests and diseases.

Many tropical countries have successfully adapted the highly productive and efficient mono cultural agricultural techniques of temperate zones. Malaysia has its rubber and oil palm plantations. Despite this seeming success, the underlying fragility of the system cannot be over emphasized. Brazil’s entire rubber industry was wiped out by a single fungus infestation.

The hot tropical climate is not all liability. That warm weather brings with it equally warm waters and pristine beaches. The temperate countries may have their beautiful beaches but they are only for sightseeing. You cannot swim, not even in mid summer, as the water is too cold. Smart tropical nations capitalize on their warm climate to create a new major industry: tourism. The entire Caribbean is now a tourists’ paradise. Previously isolated and undeveloped fishing villages like Cancun in Mexico have become prized destinations for holidaying Europeans and Americans. In Cabos San Lucas and Mazatlan, Mexico, sport fishing is now much more lucrative and a steady source of income than commercial fishing.

Malaysia too should take advantage of its warm sandy beaches and market itself aggressively to the affluent and densely populated areas like Japan and Europe. Many rubber plantations are now converted into golf resorts that in the aggregate produce more for the economy than the old rubber trees they had replaced. As a foreign exchange earner, tourism is now second (albeit a distant second) only to manufacturing.

The least important aspect of geography is the bounty nature has bestowed on some countries. Why the Good Lord chose to place hydrocarbons, precious minerals, and other valuable resources in some countries and not others is not for us to question. But God’s bounty alone is not enough, as evidenced by the continuing poverty among citizens of the rich oil-producing Arab nations. Throughout history we have seen the same story repeated, of well-endowed nations and their leaders squandering their God-given wealth. That old adage, easy come easy go, applies to nations as well as individuals.

Additionally, what we consider as valuable varies with time and age. Hydrocarbon may be considered black gold today but there was a time at the dawn of the nuclear age, with its promise of cheap and bountiful energy, when the price of gasoline merely reflected the cost of production; the commodity itself had minimal value.

Current Malaysian headlines carry the news that the country is selling fresh water to Singapore at a ridiculously low price. And we are committing to a long-term contract. Clean water is now more precious than oil. In American supermarkets and elsewhere, bottled water costs more than gasoline! Water rights are highly contentious issues in the dry Western states of America and the Middle East. Canada is protecting its fresh water lakes and rivers from pollution, recognizing that they are now truly valuable natural assets on par with its oil and gas fields. Malaysia too must protect this precious resource more carefully.

Next: Culture Matters

The Labu and Labi Team of Najib and Muhyyddin (Third of Four Parts)

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

The Labu and Labi Team of Najib and Muhyiddin

M. Bakri Musa

The Ugly and Dysfunctional Mahathir-Anwar Pair

As leader, Mahathir is essentially a one-man team, a loner. He exhibits the typical alpha-male monkey mode. An alpha monkey could tolerate other males in the colony only if they were to submit to him, or be seen doing so. Any hint of a non-deferring behavior or “dissing” would be dealt with quickly until the challenger is either driven out or fatally finished off. Such leaders have little use for a deputy, partner, or a team. Instead he needs a sidekick, in the manner of a Jim McMahon to Johnny Carson; someone to make the leader looks good and be the butt of his jokes.

Consider Mahathir’s relationship with his first deputy, Musa Hitam. It went well so long as Musa deferred to Mahathir, that is, by being submissive. In the beginning, Musa was exactly that. The moment he began to assert himself or received more attention than Mahathir, it marked the beginning of the end for Musa.

The same dynamics governed Mahathir’s relationship with his third deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. Like Musa, Anwar was only too willing to be Mahathir’s sidekick and to humor him, at least initially. And why not; Anwar was handsomely rewarded, as seen by his rapid ascent in the party and government. Mahathir never viewed Anwar as a threat seeing that he was very much younger and thus could patiently bide his time. That scenario would have successfully played out to the end had Anwar not succumb to the impatient goading of his many impatient and greedy supporters.

Mahathir’s alpha male traits were never more in display following UMNO’s highly contentious leadership convention of 1987 which saw Tengku Razaleigh nearly toppling Mahathir. In the aftermath, Mahathir had to do what every alpha monkey male would, that is, get rid of its challenger.

It did not surprise me that the deputies Mahathir was most comfortable with were Ghaffar Baba and Abdullah Badawi. Both played the role of the sidekick only too well, especially Abdullah Badawi. Unfortunately they, specifically Abdullah, only played the role, as Mahathir found out too late and much to his regret.

Ghaffar Baba also played the second fiddle role exceptionally well, leading many to underestimate him. His inability to speak English merely reinforced the public perception of his shortcomings; many also doubted his intellect. Nothing could be further from the truth. He had a formidable intellect; however being a kampong boy with no family connections, the best that he could aspire to was the Sultan Idris Training College.

Not only was Ghaffar well endowed with innate intelligence, he was also “street smart,” but he skillfully hid both under his characteristic and very Malay humility. Make no mistake, the late Ghaffar Baba could read the Malay psyche very well, a skill that Mahathir usefully tapped. In that respect he contributed considerably to the partnership with Mahathir. Ghaffar was no mere sidekick, as many saw him.

With his vast understanding of the nuances of Malay culture, Ghaffar could have successfully fended off Anwar’s challenge, but Ghaffar knew that his party was in desperate need of new blood. At the same time he did not wish to see the party that he loved so dearly be fractured by an intense rivalry at the top. It was those noble considerations that made him gave way to Anwar, and not, as many believed, his fear of defeat. Ghaffar exhibited class as well as courage in bowing out early in that tussle with Anwar; he put his party’s interest ahead of his own. That is a rarity among today’s politicians.

As for Abdullah, when a previously non-alpha male monkey takes over, it first instinct is to kill all the babies of the previous alpha male in an attempt to eliminate his predecessor’s genes in the colony. This was what Abdullah did by ‘killing’ off Mahathir’s many ‘babies,’ his pet mega projects.

Abdullah’s mistake was not realizing that Mahathir had not been ‘killed’ or banished from the colony. That alpha monkey was still in the same jungle, imperiously perched high up on another tree, the Petronas Twin Towers. He was still very much alive and influential. Abdullah never knew what hit him when Mahathir unleashed his fury.

Because he was essentially a one-man show, Mahathir’s legacy would be at considerable risk once he is gone. We saw that already when Abdullah took over, only that he was so clumsy and inept. Had Mahathir cultivated younger leaders a la Tun Razak to Tunku, or even a not-so-young but a capable one a la Razak to Dr. Ismail, Mahathir would have greatly enhanced the caliber of his leadership as well ensure that his legacy would endure.

I predict that once Mahathir is gone, his long tenure would merit only an asterisk in our modern history, as Mao Zedong is to China’s. Mao ruled for over a quarter of a century. It would be a gross understatement to say that he had the greatest (though not necessarily positive) impact on China and the Chinese. Yet today, if one were to ask the throngs of shoppers at Beijing’s many modern shopping malls who Mao was, the likely response would be, “Mao, who?” Not too long ago they even threw his wife into jail. Some legacy!

Sizing Up Najib and Muhyiddin

Najib is an aristocrat, the son of a former prime minister. He comes from a modern nuclear family: father, mother and the five sons, Najib being the oldest. He had a privileged upbringing, including boarding school and university abroad. Najib and his brothers had plenty of parental love, what with their stay-at-home traditional mother. Even though the late Tun was a busy man, rest assured that with only five sons, he would remember and celebrate their birthdays.

Muhyiddin is one of over four dozen children of a village alim with multiple wives. It would be unlikely for his father to even remember Muhyiddin’s name, much less his birthday. In dynamics, young Muhyiddin had essentially a fatherless childhood. He attended the village school and later a small town high school, before proceeding to the local university.

The wives they have chosen too are very different. Najib’s current wife, his second, is the poster girl for extravagance and vulgarity, a Malaysian Imelda Marcos, except that Imelda had a weakness only for shoes. Muhyiddin’s wife is the typical kampong girl; she views her job as being to be by his side; to be seen but never heard.

It is easy to imagine Rosmah being actively engaged in her husband’s business. I cannot even contemplate Muhyiddin seriously engaging his wife in serious matters. He is the typical alpha kampong male; he knows what is best and his word rules.

Their seven-year age difference means that Muhyiddin could not possibly succeed Najib in the usual transition process. Muhyiddin is the older, so by the time Najib retires, Muhyiddin would be too old to take over. The only conceivable way for him to get the top slot would be if Najib’s tenure were to be prematurely cut short, by unexpected death or sordid scandals. Both are not remote possibilities. Najib’s father died in his early 50s from leukemia, and that malady remains lethal even today. As a timely reminder, many a Third World leader had succumbed to fatal “accidents.”

Scandals would be the more likely career killer for Najib. He certainly has some nasty ones hanging over him, from the brutal murder of the Mongolian model to his admitted conversations with Anwar Ibrahim’s alleged sodomy victim. Then there are the steady streams of squalid incompetence during his tenure as Defense Minister, from stolen jet engines to newly-acquired submarines that would not dive.

It does not escape everyone’s notice that far from defending Najib, Muhyiddin seems to relish his superior’s travails. Worse, he does not even bother to hide his delight.

In Malaysian politics, followers could sniff right away rivalries at the top. They would then quickly realign their positions and shift their loyalties in the hope of latching onto the winning team. The game would quickly degenerate into a sport of running down the opposing camps, with temporary alliances forged, broken, and then re-constituted to meet the quickly evolving dynamics. Thus expect even more ugly revelations from all sides.

This is already happening. Many are shocked at the utter corruption and rottenness of the party and its leaders. While such exposés would be bad for the party, they would be good for the country, especially considering that the next general election will only be a few years away.

Many would conclude that the inevitable collapse of UMNO under Najib to be the fulfillment of the RAHMAN prophecy, the “N” of the acronym representing Najib. I argue otherwise. There is no alignment of the stars that would preordain such an outcome. Rather what we have here reflects nothing more than Najib’s lack of leadership and the dearth of talent within UMNO. Had Mahathir chosen Najib instead of Abdullah as his (Mahathir’s) successor, Najib’s and thus UMNO’s political demise would have come sooner.

Were that to happen, my only regret would be to see the inglorious end to what was once an illustrious Malay institution – UMNO. Tun Razak was one of the key personalities in setting it up. It took only a generation to destroy what he had worked very hard to create and build. It would the supreme irony that it would be his son who would be responsible for destroying UMNO.

That would be quite a legacy.

Next: Salvaging Najib

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #9

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

Culture and Geography: An Experiment of Nature

In Guns, Germs, and Steel Diamond describes an experiment of nature to illustrate the influence of geography on culture. The vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean contains myriads of islands that are populated by Polynesians. They all have a common ancestry and in the millennium surrounding the birth of Christ their descendents independently colonized and inhabited the various islands. These range from large land masses (New Zealand, Hawaii) to tiny atolls; their geology ranges from volcanic soil to limestone outcroppings; and their climate from lush tropical (Guam) to subtropical (Hawaii) and temperate (New Zealand and Chatham Islands). As these islands were separated by vast expanse of ocean, there were minimal subsequent interactions between the various settlers. They were thus left to chart their own future, conditioned by their unique physical environments. The original Polynesians shared the same culture, language, biology, and state of technological development. They were all familiar with domesticated plants and animals; indeed they brought these species along with them as they settled the various islands.

A branch of the Polynesians, the Maoris, settled in New Zealand. The northern island was warm and suitable for the traditional Polynesian agricultural practices. They settled quite easily and their population grew with the abundant food supply. With the rapid growth, they developed pockets of high-density settlements and organized social and political entities along the pattern described by Ibn Khaldun. The fertile soil enabled them to produce surplus food and thus freed part of the population from farming to engage in other specialized activities like soldiering and craftsmen. Their social structure too, advanced rapidly. But with their clusters of dense population, conflicts inevitably developed, resulting in frequent skirmishes and wars. Thus the Maoris were toughened by the frequent and deadly encounters and competition with their neighbors.

Five hundred miles to the east on tiny Chatham Islands, another branch of Polynesians, the Moriori, took a different path. Like their Maori cousins, the Moriori were also farmers, but the climate of their new abode did not permit them to practice their traditional skills. Their tropical crops would not grow, unlike in New Zealand. They thus reverted to being hunter-gatherers, depending on the ocean’s bounty and the island’s birds and animals for sustenance. They did not have surplus food and the population did not grow rapidly. Indeed they were aware of their precarious position and took steps to reduce their number by castrating their male infants. Unlike the Maoris, the Morioris did not have the chance to specialize into warriors, farmers, and chieftains. Being isolated and in dire straits, they learned to get along with each other, renouncing armed conflicts as means of resolving issues. They had no warriors or established social structures. Out of necessity in their harsh environment, they sensibly accepted the futility of armed conflicts.

In 1835 the worlds of the Moriori and Maori collided, with devastating consequences to the former. Two shiploads of armed Maoris discovered the Chatham Islands, and with their superior weapons and warrior skills, easily subjugated the peaceful Morioris. The Maoris were ferocious invaders, slaughtering the non-violent Morioris with no difficulty or mercy. This brutal outcome of an asymmetrical encounter of two different subcultures was predictable.

The Maoris and Marioris may have all descended from the same stock, yet after only a few centuries separated from each other and conditioned by their new unique physical environments, their societies became radically different.

I can cite many more examples of such asymmetric encounters between different cultures that resulted in equally devastating consequences. Geography, not biology, sealed the fate of the Marioris.

Malaysia too has seen its share of asymmetric cultural clashes. When the British started their rubber plantations, they needed abundant cheap labor. Native Malays were not eager to undertake such backbreaking work for what was essentially “peanut” pay. They could live quite comfortably off the land. But that peanut pay was more than attractive to the millions starving in China and India, and they readily came. Coming from a land where starvation and exploitative warlords were common, they readily fall into a culture of elbowing themselves to the dinner table. They had to scramble, or starve. In contrast, the Malays who were blessed by fertile land and bountiful seas saw little need for such aggressiveness and blatant greediness. There was always plenty to share, enough for those who were late or could not come to the table. There was no need to fight over food. It is not difficult to predict the subsequent cultural clashes between natives and immigrants.

From his observations on the Maoris and Marioris, Diamond went on to paint a grand picture of the early development of human civilization. He posits that the first civilizations occurred in Eurasia rather than the Americas because of the physical geography of the continents. The original hunter/gatherer on Eurasia successfully domesticated some wild animals and plants, and gradually assumed a sedentary existence.

As this proved so much more efficient, or at least more convenient, it soon spread to other hunter/gatherer groups. With each successive spread, the group improved on the discoveries of earlier groups. With time the entire continent became inhabited by farmers rather than hunter/gatherers. Because of the physical geography of Eurasia, with its horizontal (east-west) axis of mountains and rivers, the domesticated plants and animals readily adapted to the new areas because of their same latitude and climate.

In contrast, on the American and African continents the mountains and rivers are along a north-south axis. Even if one of the ancient groups successfully domesticated some wild animals and discovered edible plants, such an idea would not spread widely as the climate varied greatly along the natural path of people. Plants that would grow at the southern end of the Nile could not be cultivated further north. Thus there was little chance for amplification and subsequent enhancement of any agricultural innovation.

Geography influences climate, and climate in turn affects human behavior. The seasons of temperate zones regulate human activities. You sow in the spring and reap in the fall; in winter you, like the earth, remain dormant. Further, with the inevitable coming of winter and the consequent shortage of food, one has to prepare during the bountiful summer months to stock supplies. Hence the concept of planning is introduced into the culture. Failure to do so would be disastrous both for the individuals as well as the group. The cold dark nights, being non conducive to procreative activities, are more suitable for intellectual pursuits and other cerebral activities.

The monotonous climate of the tropics, with one day more or less like any other day and with no distinct season, there is no sense of urgency or need for planning. If it rains today, wait for a few hours and it will shine again and you can then go out and fish. Such procrastinations breed the manana (do tomorrow) syndrome. Before you know it, a decade has gone by.

The effect of climate on me was certainly impressive. I remember my high school days in Malaysia and how difficult it was to study and concentrate, especially in the heat of the day. Even with repeated attempts at washing my face, I still could not keep cool. When I arrived in Canada, my first impression was how easy and effortless it was to study. It was so cool and refreshing all the time, even in midday. It was, in the words of my late father, as if the whole country was air-conditioned!

I was so impressed with this personal effect on me that I wrote to the Malaysian minister of education at the time suggesting that he build a residential school or a university at Cameron Highlands. The cool climate there would be highly conducive to academic pursuits. Being also typically Malaysian, I did not expect a response, and I was not disappointed!

Singapore’s senior minister Lee Kuan Yew observed that air-conditioning was one of the greatest modern inventions, as it allows those in the tropics to be as productive mentally as those in the temperate zones. Seeing how well that small island republic has done, he may be on to something profound!

Next: The Economics of Geography

The Labu and Labi Team (Part 2)

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

The Labu and Labi Team of Najib and Muhyiddin
M. Bakri Musa

[Second of Four Parts]

The Best Team

The Razak-Ismail duo lasted just a month shy of three years, prematurely cut short by the sudden but not unexpected death of Tun Ismail. At first glance they had all the ingredients for a divisive and acrimonious relationship. One was a lawyer the other, a physician; two professionals not known to get along well with each other. Members of the two professions view society differently; likewise their approaches to problem solving. Lawyers cross examine their witnesses; doctors get a history from their patients. Lawyers assume their clients would lie; physicians implicitly trust theirs. Attorneys’ clients may think it is in their interest to lie; patients however risk their lives if they were to mislead their physicians.

What made the Razak-Ismail team worked remarkably well was that both were true professionals as well as consummate politicians in the best traditional mold. It was this combination that made their partnership blossomed. As professionals they were able to separate their personal feelings to address the problems at hand; as accomplished politicians they were skillful in the art of compromise, a fine sense of politics as the art of the possible. They were able to sink whatever personal, political and professional differences and ambitions they harbor in order to best serve their client: the nation.

They also shared many similarities. Under different circumstances or with other personalities, those similarities could well be sources of unending conflicts. Consider their age; only seven years separating them, with Razak the younger. Politicians are inherently ambitious and competitive; they all aspire to be the number one. The number two could hardly wait for number one to exit, making for an often stormy relationship towards the end, as demonstrated by the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown show. Being comparable in age would only aggravate that aspect of the rivalry.

Surprisingly, we did not see that kind of rivalry with Razak and Ismail. While Ismail was as ambitious as the rest, he was the original and genuine citizen-legislator. Meaning, someone who takes time off from his regular vocation to serve his nation, and then after giving his best, leave. Ismail was a rare breed, especially when compared to the specimens we have today; they make politics their permanent careers. Najib’s cabinet, like Abdullah’s and Mahathir’s before that, is infested with tired old career politicians who have no life outside of politics. They hung on long past their shelf-life.

Both Razak and Ismail were also aristocrats, Razak from Pahang and Ismail, Johor. They both attended English schools and the best English institutions; Razak read law at Lincoln’s Inn and Ismail, medicine at Melbourne. Jagoh kampong (village champions) they were not. They were not insular as they had competed successfully against the world.

Those similarities may have contributed to their cordial and workable relationship, but those were not the main factors. Instead what them “click” was their deep commitment to public service. They were true patriots. It was this that made them overcome whatever differences they may have had between them.

And differences there were! In personality, the two could not be more dissimilar. Ismail was the gregarious type; he knew how to enjoy life. As a medical student he idled his time on the cabaret floor on the evening before his crucial anatomy oral examination!

Razak was the studious one; he was a legend at Malay College. He completed his law studies well before his scholarship ended. At social gatherings I could not imagine Tun Razak backslapping his guests or joining them in uproarious laughter, as Dr. Ismail would.

Being from the predominantly Malay state of Pahang, Razak’s political philosophy was more towards Malay nationalism. Ismail hailed from the more urban and cosmopolitan Johor; that shaped his worldview.

Yet these differences complement them rather than being sources of rivalry, a reflection of their great sense of self confidence. Ismail did not need to aspire for the top post in order to show his stuff, while Razak was not in the least threatened by having someone of the caliber of Ismail as a deputy. Malaysians were blessed to have a pair of such caliber helming the nation. It is sad that their success did not inspire the present generation of leaders to emulate if not better that team of Razak and Ismail.

The Longest and Most Enduring

If as Prime Minister Tun Razak did not feel threatened by having a highly capable deputy in the person of Dr. Ismail, the Tun also did not feel that being a deputy to the Tunku would hamper his ability to contribute towards the nation. He also did not view being in the number two slot for an inordinately long time as a reflection of his ability. Only when the Tunku’s leadership was wanting in the aftermath of the 1969 race riots did Razak assert himself.

Razak could have headed UMNO and thus be the country’s first prime minister if he had wanted to; the opportunity was there. When the party’s first president, the towering Datuk Onn, left the party sulking in 1951, many wanted Razak to take over. He was not yet 30 at the time, and already they recognized his exceptional leadership and executive talent.

Razak politely declined the honor, not out of a sense of false modesty or lack of confidence, rather his astute reading of the Malay psyche and culture. He rightly believed that his community would more readily accept as leader someone older and thus perceived to be more experienced. In Malay culture, age equals wisdom; hence his declining the honor. Instead, Razak was instrumental in persuading the initially reluctant Tunku to head UMNO.

At another level, UMNO’s stated mission then was merdeka. Razak was shrewd enough to recognize that the party would need someone whom the British would find comfortable to negotiate. The affable and anglophile Cambridge-bred Tunku fit the bill. That was a particularly prescient call on Razak’s part, reflecting his wisdom and foresight despite his youth!

Razak’s wisdom in turning to Tunku was manifested in other ways. It turned out that the major obstacle in the negotiations for merdeka was not with the British but the Malay sultans. The British knew that colonialism was no longer chic or compatible with the values of a civilized society. They were ready and eager to let go of their colonies. The sultans however, were an unanticipated issue. Their concerns about their status in an independent Malaysia made them recalcitrant. They were not without reasons; they saw only too clearly the fate of the Sultan of Jogjakarta in neighboring Indonesia, as well as the multitude of Maharajas in India.

With Tunku, a member of the Kedah royal family leading the negotiations, the sultans felt reassured. Had it been the commoner Razak, the negotiations would definitely have been tougher.

Many ascribe the enduring partnership of Rahman and Razak to their presumed traditional Malay father-son relationship, with the loyal son always deferring to the father. Nothing could be further from the truth. I had never seen any public display of filial genuflecting by Razak to the Tunku. When the Tunku was swamped in the aftermath of the May 1969 riot, Razak was not at all bashful in taking over. That was certainly not the response of a supposedly obedient son or display of undivided filial devotion.

Instead their relationship was akin to that of a non-executive chairman of the board and the chief executive president. While Tunku was prime minister, it was Razak who actually ran the country. All the major initiatives, from overhauling of the education system to the massive rural development, originated from and executed by Razak.

A comparable dynamics would be between the ambassador and his deputy chef de mission in the old Soviet embassies. The real power and authority resided with the DCM, not the titular number one, the ambassador. He was merely the figure head, the sultan as it were. In that way, he (very rarely she) could indulge himself at diplomatic functions like getting drunk without compromising embassy secrets. Similarly if the ambassador were to be blackmailed, he could be readily expended.

I always thought that to be an ingenious scheme! It was certainly successful with the Soviets; it was no less so with Tunku and Tun Razak.

Next: The Ugly and Dysfunctional Mahathir-Anwar Pair