Archive for May, 2010

Tackling Subsidies and Their Myriad Manifestations

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

Tackling Subsidies And Their Myriad Manifestations
M. Bakri Musa

Idris Jala, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department and PEMANDU CEO, has yet to convince his cabinet colleagues, in particular the Prime Minister, of the need to reduce subsidies specifically and government spending generally. He has to do that first before taking his Subsidy Rationalization Lab road show to the rest of the country.

Responding to the first “Open House,” Prime Minister Najib indicated that he would “leave it to the people to decide on whether they [the subsidies] should be maintained or abolished.” In doing so he abrogated his leadership on a critical economic issue. He is following instead of leading public opinion; a wet-finger-in-the-air type of leader.

While I do not share Idris Jala’s dire prediction of Malaysia becoming bankrupt in nine years – nations, unlike corporations and individuals, cannot do that – nonetheless the grim picture he painted is not far from the likely reality. His likening Malaysia’s future to today’s Greece may or not be valid but there are enough useful lessons from the current Greek tragedy.

Greece is not bankrupt, nor will it ever be; the Greeks are suffering because of economic mismanagement by their leaders. Subsidy for the poor or for essential goods was only a minor part of the mess. The Greeks were borrowing beyond their capacity to pay; they borrowed just to keep their bloated government afloat.

The other pertinent lesson is that even when faced with a catastrophe, people who have long enjoyed subsidies and special privileges would not readily give those up. This is true of the Greeks (the ugly mass demonstrations and strikes there attest to that) as well as others. Americans long used to generous subsidies for their home mortgages and health insurances would severely punish their leaders at election time should they dare even touch either issue. And America has a deficit much worse (twice as bad, as a percentage of GDP) than Malaysia.

As a reminder, the current global economic turmoil was triggered by the American expansion of its housing subsidy through “sub-prime mortgages.” Again, this was facilitated primarily through two government-sponsored (and thus subsidized) corporations, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. It was done with the best of intentions, making housing affordable to the poor.

Those factors notwithstanding, in the many deliberations on the current economic crisis, I have yet to hear an American leader or economist suggest doing away or even trimming the housing subsidy. And America does not lack for wise leaders or smart economists!

So if Idris Jala or anyone thinks that Malaysians would readily give up their subsidies, he is blind to the universal precept of human behavior. Likewise with special privileges, which after all are subsidies manifested differently; so do not expect Bumiputras to give that up easily either.

Choosing An Easy Target

Idris Jala showed the frightening and unsustainable trend of rising debt and increasing deficits. There are only two ways out: increase revenue through economic growth, and reduce spending, or more accurately, curtail expenditures that do not contribute to economic growth. As any businessman knows, you sometimes have to spend money to generate money.

I wish Idris Jala had concentrated only on those two central themes. Instead he focused on ending subsidies, specifically on petroleum and essential food items. Thus he is being portrayed as targeting the poor, and not without good reasons. That distracts him. It is easy and tempting to prey on the poor; though large in numbers they lack economic and political clout.

Of the record RM74B spent on subsidies in 2009, about 57 percent were on social services; 33, fuel and energy; 7, infrastructures; and 3, foods. As for the beneficiaries, only 2 percent were farmers, fishermen, and the poor.

Those subsidies on social services and infrastructures could be viewed as investments as they could potentially enhance our human and physical capital, and thus the nation’s productive capacity. Even here we could increase the efficiency by plugging the leakages.

Ending subsidies for foods would address only a tiny part of the problem (3 percent). Besides, the per capita consumption of such staples among the poor is comparable to or only minimally less than the rich, but the poor has to expend proportionately more of their income.

Idris purported to show that Malaysians enjoy the cheapest price in the region, with cooking oil costing only RM3.30 as compared to RM8.70 in Singapore. In making that comparison, Idris used the exchange rate instead of the purchasing power parity (ppp) or the Economist’s Big Mac Index. Had either been used, the price differential would be less impressive. I do not know whether Idris is disingenuous, trying to mislead, or being intellectually dishonest in using the exchange rate.

Idris proposes mitigating measures to help the poor. That would inevitably require massive administrative machinery, thus consuming whatever savings being generated. For the amount involved, it would be preferable as well as politically wise to leave things where there are, except for sugar. I would remove its subsidy not for economic but public health reasons. With rampant obesity and diabetes, any initiative that would lower sugar consumption would be good. Likewise I would hike taxes on alcohol, tobacco and gambling, but not high enough to stimulate a thriving contraband industry.

Petroleum however is different; its per-capita consumption among the rich is considerably higher. Consequently, its subsidy disproportionately benefits the rich. Again here Idris proposes cash rebates to motorcycle and small car owners. Another bureaucracy!

I am for ending petroleum subsidy, phased in slowly to minimize dislocations since it is such a crucial fuel literally and figuratively in a modern economy. However, instead of cash rebates I would eliminate taxes on buses, taxis and other conveyances to transport passengers. That would effectively half the price of a Proton to be used as a taxi, making it easier for owner-operators.

I would subsidize season tickets for bus and rail to ease the burden on commuters, as Canada is doing. Vancouver has a per capita income many times that of Malaysia, yet its car-ownership figure is considerably lower. Consequently the air in that city is not polluted with car exhaust, and the streets a pleasure to stroll. Singapore uses differential toll rates and efficient mass transit to discourage city driving.

Ending subsidy on petroleum would save not only money but also the environment. Focusing only on petroleum and sparing food subsidies (except sugar) would also make the exercise an easier sell. Besides, petroleum subsidy is massive, while food subsidies are small change in comparison, and evoke considerable emotional response. It is just not worth expending political capital and risking public wrath for the promised minuscule returns.

Hidden Subsidies

Idris should not stop with the obvious and massive petroleum subsidy. He should pursue other equally expensive and rapidly growing but hidden ones. They are pernicious precisely because they are not overt; the public is not apprised of the costs. There are no available figures to be put on fancy graphs and pie charts for your Power Point presentation.

One is the preferential awarding of contracts to Bumiputras. However noble the objective may be, unless we know what the added costs are, we cannot begin a cost-benefit analysis or assess the program’s efficacy. Few would quibble with the extra 5 or 10 percent to have a contract awarded to a Bumiputra in the name of social equity and correcting past inequities, but many would grumble if that figure were to balloon beyond 30 percent.

It is customary that contracts below a certain amount be awarded exclusively to Bumiputras. Even if the added costs were only 10 percent each (a very conservative estimate!), in the aggregate they would impose a considerable burden on the government. I suggest that Idris’s “lab” do a study on this.

Then there are the overt as well as hidden subsidies to the myriad GLCs. Many are perennial “corporate welfare bums,” forever hooked on government bailouts. The Malaysian corporate scene is littered with the carcasses of the likes of Bank Bumiputra. Again I challenge Idris to analyze that!

Such studies would require much thought and wise analysis; they cannot be done by posing simplistic questions via SMS.

The only difference between the recipients of cooking oil subsidy versus those preferred Bumiputra contractors and “corporate welfare bums” like Bank Bumiputra is that the former are weak while the latter, powerful.

If Idris Jala had been diligent and fearless in analyzing the twin problems of ballooning deficits and increasing spending, he would begin with the obvious and massive petroleum subsidy, then flush out the hidden subsidies represented by non-competitive bids of government contracts, and then get rid those money-losing GLCs. That would definitely make a dent on our deficit and spending problem. That would also invigorate our economy, thereby enhancing the revenue side.

He does not need a road show for that; all he has to do is convince his colleagues in the cabinet, beginning with the Prime Minister.

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #16

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

Chapter 3: Lessons From The Past

Allah will not change the conditions of a people until they themselves change.
—The Holy Qur’an (Surah Al R’ad—Thunder) 13:11

In the immediately preceding chapter I surveyed the various factors that bear on the development of human societies. I now turn to evaluate the influence of those factors on earlier societies. I choose three examples: the early Muslims of the 7th -10th Centuries; the European Reformation of the 16th Century; and closer to Malaysia in time and place, Japan’s Meiji Restoration of the 19th Century.

The transformations of the Arabs and Europeans were in response to internal challenges. With the Muslims it was the increasing inequities of the ancient Arab society; with the Reformation, the egregious abuses and overreaching of the Catholic Church of Medieval Europe. In both, the power of ideas effected the ensuing radical changes for the better. The Japanese too were crumbling, with the unraveling and corruption of their existing order. Unlike the Arabs and Europeans, the Japanese were additionally challenged by outside forces beyond their control with the arrival of Westerners upon their shores. In all three instances, the resulting changes reverberated far beyond, both in time and geography.

The Experience of Early Muslims

Many Muslims today romanticize the history of early Islam. They simplistically reduce the early course of this great religion thus: Allah chose Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him) to be His Messenger, and he in turn spread the divine revelations to his fellow tribesman and voila, the words of Allah were wholeheartedly accepted. Arabia was transformed, and the faith spread beyond.

Even the most cursory review of the early history of Islam reveals otherwise. Muslims rightly refer to the pre-Islamic period as the Age of Jahiliyah (Ignorance), with the essential social organization based on tribalism. It was a society plagued with gross social inequities and injustices, with slavery and other abhorrent cultural traits like female infanticide the norm. The prevailing system of justice was an eye for an eye, and the established ethics was one of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The ethos was one of might being right.

Muhammad’s receiving the divine revelations did not alter the situation overnight. He may be preaching the message of Allah, but that did not impress his fellow tribesmen. He may be divinely guided but that did not spare him and his companions from making grievous errors and serious misjudgments. There were miscalculations along the way, together with treachery, greed, jealousy, and all the other ugly emotions known to man. Colossal mistakes were made, the consequences of which present-day Muslims are still paying the price. One reflection of this turmoil is that two of the first four caliphs (“The Rightly Guided”) were assassinated.

I have read many biographies of our prophet (pbuh), ranging from the most embellished hagiographies written by well-meaning followers of our faith to the most cynical versions viewed through the jaundiced eye of the Orientalists. With each reading I learn a little bit more about our holy prophet (pbuh) that further increases my already immense admiration for this great servant of God.

Ironically, my greatest appreciation of our prophet comes from reading accounts where he is being portrayed as an ordinary mortal, sans his miracles. The prophet was of course no ordinary being. Allah in His wisdom did not choose His Last Messenger capriciously. Long before he received his revelation, Muhammad’s sterling character had already been evident. By this I do not mean the miracles that are attributed to him in some of the hallowed hagiographies. For example, it is said that as an infant his mother had extreme difficulty finding a wet nurse for him. As his father had died before his birth, would-be wet nurses rightly felt that they would not be compensated. When one woman, Haleemah binte Abu Thu’aib, finally picked Muhammad (pbuh), it was because she had no other choice. Her reluctance was subsequently amply rewarded, for when she brought the baby to her bosom for the first time, her previously nonproductive breasts suddenly became engorged, with enough nourishing milk not only for Muhammad but also her own infant.

Another miracle had it that while the prophet was a child, Angel Gabriel seized him, ripped open his chest, took his heart out and washed it with iced water in a golden basin, before putting the newly cleansed heart back into Muhammad’s chest. The angel also threw out a black clot, no doubt casting away everything evil.

Such accounts of divine interventions are of course heavy on symbolism. The heart represents the very essence of man, the seat of his soul and very character. Besides, this was no ordinary cleansing; it was in a golden vase, and using iced water no less, both scarce commodities in a hot desert. I consider such accounts interesting if not mildly hilarious, but being miracles they defy rational analysis.

Even dispensing with such celebrated accounts, there were indeed many contemporary records of the prophet’s exemplary life long before Allah selected him. As a young man he already had a reputation for being serious, contemplative, and honest. He was meticulous with money and trustworthy, invaluable traits in a trader. Indeed Muhammad (pbuh) later became an extremely successful trader for a rich widower who subsequently became his wife. He was referred to as Al-Ameen – trustworthy and honest.

On one occasion when the Arabs were rebuilding the Ka’aba after it was damaged from an earlier flood, there was much rivalry and jealousy among the various participants as to who would have the honor of putting the final touch. As usual such a trivial competition quickly escalated and they were ready to come to blows. Finally, calmer heads prevailed and they agreed to ask the first passerby to arbitrate their disagreement. Lo and behold, Muhammad (pbuh) was the first visitor, and they asked him to mediate. Muhammad in his wisdom immediately sensed the gravity of the situation. He was fully aware of the disastrous consequences should he make a mistake.

He quickly devised a brilliant and equitable scheme of sharing the honor. He asked them to spread out a carpet and he then placed the Black Stone, the central object of reverence, in the center of it. He then had a representative from each tribe to lift the edge of the carpet and thus carried the stone to its final resting position. Muhammad then carefully lifted the stone to its final spot. Everyone was satisfied, as they had all participated in the final effort, with no one tribe hogging the honor. It was shared equally and the Arabs were most pleased that he had successfully converted a highly lethal and explosive rivalry into an amicable and cooperative endeavor.

Muhammad (pbuh) intuitively knew the wisdom that honor is not diluted by being shared; on the contrary, it is enhanced. Similarly, rivalries can, with ingenuity, be converted to meaningful teamwork, and destructive competition to fruitful cooperation.

Despite his excellent reputation, Muhammad still encountered enormous difficulties in preaching the Words of Allah. His message of belief in a Supreme Being, social justice, and equality of man threatened the existing social order. His ideas were radical and potentially destabilizing. The ancient Arabs were perfectly content with their current existence, enriched by their profitable trade. Life was good and they saw no need for any change, much less a sweeping one.

His message of social equality was particularly threatening. This was after all a society where slaves were kept, together with indentured labor. Women were kept properties. The birth of a daughter was a calamity, and female infanticide rampant. The norms of the day were treachery, double dealing, and unscrupulous behaviors. Gambling, drinking, and fornication were not regarded as vices, rather rewards after a hard day of trading. Their belief was in idols and superstitions, not of an Almighty God. For generations they had worshipped their ancestors, and here was their Muhammad (pbuh) telling them that this practice was blasphemy!

The Quraishis, who were responsible for the holy shrine, the Ka’aba, considered themselves the chosen people, with special privileges to exact tributes from the pagan pilgrims who came to Mecca. Those pilgrims had to buy food and clothing only from the Quraishis; they could not bring their own supplies. The Quraishis had essentially cornered the market on pilgrims, perhaps the first known trade monopoly.

There were a few who found such injustices shocking. Long before Muhammad’s time, there were individuals who abhorred these decadent and unjust ways. Among the reformers were Abdullah ibn Jahsh and Zaid ibn Amr. When Muhammad started his mission, Abdullah readily accepted Islam, only to convert later to Christianity, as he was unable to face the social heat. Zaid began his own reform before Muhammad, and was murdered for his efforts. It is noteworthy that his son, Saeed, was one of the first to accept the message of Islam.

Next: Spreading the Word of God

Quality, Quantity and Equity in Malaysian Education #3

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Quality, Quantity, and Equity in Malaysian Education #3
M. Bakri Musa
[Last of Three Parts]

[Part One discusses the crucial role of workers’ cognitive abilities (language skills, mathematical competency, and science literacy) rather than years of formal schooling in determining and contributing to a country’s economic development. The second part addresses issues of quality, quantity and equity in Malaysian education. In this last part, I recap the experiences elsewhere and the lessons we could usefully learn.]

Clinical Trials in Educational Initiatives

In addressing the issue of equity, we should not be content only with providing what we perceive to be “equal opportunities.” For if the results do not improve equity despite our intervention, then we must have the humility to examine our premise and be prepared to accept that what we thought of as “equal opportunities” are anything but that.

We may think that by making schools “free” we have leveled the playing friend and provided for “equal opportunity,” but if the results do not improve, then we must be prepared to re-examine our premise. It could be that the major constraint is not tuition fees but transportation and other costs. That was certainly the case when I was growing up. Thus to effectively level the playing field we should provide for transportation, especially for those living far away. American schools provide not only free transportation but also textbooks, another major cost item in education. For children of the poor, these schools also provide hot meals. Thus providing a truly “equal opportunity” entails spending more on the poor.

In educating children, we have to be aware of the Matthew effect, or accumulated advantage. This refers to the biblical verse, “For those who have, more will be given … ” (Matthew 25:29). When we provide “equal opportunity” to children on their first day of school, those who are already prepared (as having been to preschool or have parents with superior education) will gain considerably more than those who are not so advantaged, and this gap only widens with time. To effectively overcome this entails giving more to the disadvantaged, for if you continue with your “equal opportunity” you are effectively giving less to the disadvantaged.

The other pertinent observation is that the earlier this added help is given, the cheaper and more effective it would be. Meaning, it would be much cheaper and more effective to give extra help at the preschool than at first year in school; at primary than at secondary school, and at school than at university. James Heckman, the 2000 Nobel Laureate in Economics, have written persuasively on the economic advantages of these early interventions, quite apart from the moral arguments.

To apply Heckman’s insight to Malays, it would be cheaper and far more effective to provide preschools than it is to provide extra matrikulasi classes. Those matrikulasi classes in turn would be cheaper than to provide quotas in employment for Malay graduates. Meaning, providing free preschools and serving hot meals at kampong schools would be far more effective and considerably cheaper than spending billions on GLCs in terms of making Malays more competitive.

Apart from the commitment of resources, there must also be political will. There will be the inevitable obstacles, from the passive and less obvious obstacle as inertia, to more active opposition from those who perceive themselves losing or at least not gaining from the change.

It is to be expected that those who have been brought up under or benefited from the current system to resist change. Thus I have minimal confidence that our present personnel and institutions could effect these needed changes. Thus I would advocate adopting the Thai and South Korean approaches, meaning wholesale importation of the American school system, its curriculum, textbooks and teachers.

Unlike the Koreans however, I would begin at the very beginning, preschool, and then slowly work up the system to primary, then secondary, and later, undergraduate level. Once these youngsters are used to active learning and creative thinking at the preschool, they will not tolerate the rote learning and dogmatic style they would get from their teachers in the upper classes. Those teachers would then have to change. Besides, it is easier to instill new values and approaches on a fresh mind instead of having to have them unlearn their bad habits later at an older age.

Admittedly this would be a slower approach, but it would prove to be more enduring and effective.

I would add a twist or two to the Korean and Thai experiments. One is that the student enrollment at these schools should reflect Malaysian society. The other would be that these schools must provide scholarships (full or partial) equal in value of at least of 5 percent of their tuition income. The schools could then use that funds to balance the ethnic composition of their student body. Even in ethnically homogenous South Korea, there are already rumblings over the inequity of these private foreign schools, what with the poor being excluded.

When MARA started its matrikulasi colleges back in the 1970s, it too adopted the American college semester and other styles. Unfortunately it was only the styles, the superficial aspects not the core. Thus these students had electives, free from having to wear uniforms, and move from class to class. The core however, remains typically Malaysian – dogmatic instead of inquisitive; indoctrination instead of education. A generation later, nothing has changed.

I would also adopt the Rwandan approach of supplying a laptop computer to every primary school pupil. What we learn from that initiative is that those children are very effective in bringing about changes to the rest of the family and on their peers.

The other group I would give free computers would be our undergraduates. Once they have those laptops and our campuses wired, these students would have access to the libraries of the world and more. They could also listen to lectures given at the best universities of the world.

Malaysia has the added problem in that resistance to change in education is often camouflaged under nationalistic flavors. Thus the excuse to rescind the teaching of science and mathematics in English was not based on merit or valid evidence rather on emotional arguments over dubious nationalism. Political will would be needed to overcome such opposition.

This problem is compounded by what economist Timur Kuran refers to as preference falsification, our tendency of saying something publicly what we do not believe personally. Malaysians all abhor corruption, but when stopped by a cop for speeding, our first impulse is to bribe our way out. Preference falsification makes problem solving that much more difficult.

Our leaders keep extolling on the importance of Malay, yet they send their children abroad where the medium of instruction is anything but Malay. When I was growing up, my parents who were Malay school teachers were under tremendous peer and social pressures to take us out of English schools and enroll us in the then newly emerging Malay secondary schools. If Malay teachers did not support these new schools, who would, was the powerful emotional and nationalistic argument.

Blessed my late father, he bravely ignored those pressures. What fortified him, apart from inner conviction, were the actions of Malay leaders. While Tun Razak, for example, was trumpeting the promise and virtues of Malay schools, he was quietly sending his children to Britain for schooling! My father rightly concluded that until those leaders heed their own advice, he too would ignore them! My father also successfully used that argument on many of his fellow kampong folks. Today, their children owe my father a deep debt of gratitude.

After Tun Razak we had Mahathir, the professed champion of everything Islamic. He vastly expanded the Islamic establishment, with Islamic schools and universities as well Islamic ‘research’ institutes and court system. Did he send any of his children to Islamic school or college?

Today we have Najib Razak. He extols us to be glokal, to be liberated from our affirmative action clutches. So let’s see how many of his immediate family members who own and operate enterprises that would be free of cozy, san competitive-bidding government contracts.

The price we paid for Tun Razak’s preference falsification was a generation of bright young Malay minds sacrificed to the altar of Malay educational nationalism. Mahathir’s falsification caused another generation to be wasted through needless pursuit of false religiosity. We will know soon enough the price for Najib Razak’s folly.

Yes, preference falsification is pervasive, powerful, and worst of all, pernicious.

An awareness of all these obstacles should be enough to make a diligent leader humble. A healthy dose of humility is indeed what is required when approaching these problems. I do not pretend to know how the initiatives I offered here would actually work in Malaysia even though they may have worked elsewhere. Ideas that seem brilliant and foolproof in the comfort of the boardroom of a think tank or could withstand the super critical atmosphere of a graduate school seminar room may still flop in the field.

Hence the need to be humble and to think small; we should begin with pilot projects and field trials closely supervised, and then analyze the results. Then when the wrinkles have been ironed out and the necessary modifications made would you expand. Anything less and you would be playing around with precious young minds. That is morally wrong if not criminally negligent. Those precious minds are not expendable.

The brilliant young economist from MIT, Esther Duflo, suggested that leaders adopt the equivalent of a clinical trial before fully implementing any proposal. Clinical trails and double-blind studies are the norms in modern medicine; they enable physicians to advance from leeches to laser surgery.

Consider the examples of school dropout rates and enhancing educational performances, especially at the primary school level and particularly for Malays. There are certainly many brilliant ideas out there, from the giving out scholarships, as the British did way back when, to paying parents for keeping their children in school as Mexico’s Progressa program, to the Australian government rounding up children of aborigines and warehousing them into residential schools so they could live and learn in a more “civilized” environment. The Canadians did something similar to their native children.

The only commonality to all these undertakings, apart from their consequentialness, expensiveness, and massiveness, is that they were undertaken with the best of intentions. The results are also there, except that few are learning or willing to learn from them. The Canadian government to its credit examined its residential school system for the natives in 1996 and concluded using such phrases as, “an inherent element of savagery,” or “kill the Indian in the child.” At least the Canadians were honest.

Things need not be that way. Duflo tackled the perennial problem of school dropouts among African children as a research clinician would a disease. She conducted clinical trials. Among the traditional choices are paying parents, giving scholarships, and providing free books and uniforms. Then she added two non-traditional strategies: de-worming the students, and informing parents on the value of education. Actually both are not that non-traditional. De-worming was actually one of the recommendations advanced by a Malaysian Royal Commission back in 1960 to explain Malay underachievement in education. As for educating parents, that seems intuitive enough.

It turned out that the most effective strategy was to educate parents on the value of education, followed by de-worming the pupils. The conclusion: A healthy and physically vigorous kid is more likely to stay in school than if they are lethargic and worm-infested. This echoes former US Surgeon-General Jocelyn Elder’s observation, “You can’t educate a child who is not healthy, and you can’t keep a child healthy who is not educated.”

Traditional interventions like providing extra teachers, school meals, books or uniforms have minimal positive impact. Interestingly, paying parents has a negative impact.

Even after such a careful trial and we a found an initiative that works wonderfully, we should still not rest on our laurels. As mentioned earlier, good ideas, like good durians, have a shelf life. With changing conditions we must be prepared to continually tweak our programs. We must also be prepared to jettison once wonderful ideas if they no longer work, or that other ideas are better.

Fully residential schools, busing students all over the country to attend these schools were once good ideas; likewise universities’ matrikulasi. Today, they are resource wasting endeavors.

Improving the quality, increasing the quantity, and enhancing the equity of our education system are the necessary prerequisites if we were to have economic growth. Achieve this and a decade hence NEAC would report that our economy is robust because 80 percent of our workers have at least SPM. Such a declaration would reflect well on our economy as well as our workers and system of education.

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #15

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

Chapter 2: Why Some Societies Progress, Others Regress

The Seminal Role of the Individual

The preceding discussion focused on society. It is the function of society and its culture to mould its members into a preexisting pattern through socialization and acculturation. The intention is to maintain the status quo; it is necessarily static to ensure that the values and nature of that society are propagated and maintained; it is a mechanism to ensure societal stability.

Individuals are by nature unique, each of has our own preferences and choices, our likes and dislikes. Left to our own devices, human society will not be possible. We would be like a bunch of wild cats, marauding on our own. Ever try to corral a bunch of them? But even with wild animals a certain pack behavior is identifiable – a primordial societal form.

Thus we are faced with a dilemma. On one hand culture and society have essentially statist tendencies, but for progress to occur there must be change, and change inevitably threatens the status quo. Consequently throughout history progress has been the result of the works of individuals, not society.

When the first hunter-gatherers made the conversion to become farmers, this was not the result of a communal decision. Their pack leaders did not sit down and decide that they had had enough of the hunting life and wanted to settle down. More than likely there was one individual, probably an inquisitive young kid who discovered that he could plant wild seeds and at the end of the season found that he could enjoy a bountiful harvest. He probably related his discovery to other members of his family or they, on seeing that he was suddenly well fed and contented, went about to discover the secret of his newfound joy. Success is its own reward, and soon the idea spread. And like any other human inventions, others began improving on the idea, perhaps trying to plant other grains like corn. Yet others would develop the concept further by storing some of the seeds for planting in the next season, or trying to preserve them by storing in the ground or drying in the sun. Not long after that would emerge the idea of planning for the next growing season.

Wild animals too were probably domesticated in a similar fashion. Again, a group of primitives did not suddenly have a gathering and decide they would capture and tame some chosen wild sheep and goats. More than likely, a doting father gave his son a pair of baby wild sheep that were orphaned after he killed their mother. The little boy grew attached to them and when they were grown up he would not let his father kill them. The pair subsequently bred and suddenly the family had additional sheep without having to go out and hunt. Then the boy discovered that he could also drink what the lamb suckled from the mother’s teats. Voila! Milk was discovered, and the idea of a primitive dairy industry took hold.

It did not take long from there for ancient Homo sapiens to discover the utility of keeping baby sheep. Not only did they prove to be ideal toys for their children, those cuddly animals also provided a ready source of meat and milk. Further, they did not have to lug the meat around or preserve it in any way. It was made readily available fresh on the hoof at any time. Soon they would discover that the milk could be converted to cheese, the wool woven into blankets, and the hide into foot coverings and clothing.

All these developments started with one inquisitive individual with one novel idea, and with success, that idea was copied, amplified, and improved. A millennium later we have fancy Florsheim shoes and Armani woolen suits, their ingredients all coming from the ever-useful domesticated animal.

This pattern is repeated throughout history. The modern integrated circuit, the brain of the computer, was designed not by some high profile national committee or the brainchild of a farsighted leader, rather by an engineer tinkering around in the laboratory pursuing his imagination. From that basic invention, others would improve and capitalize on it. But it all began with the imagination of one person.

In the Malay legend Hikayat Abdullah, a story is told of a bright young boy who suggested that the sultan plant banana trees along the coast to absorb the impact of flying fish storming upon the beaches and impaling the citizens. The idea worked wonderfully, and many citizens were spared. Unfortunately, the sultan’s advisors warned that such a bright young man could prove to be dangerous. What other brilliant ideas would he come up with when he would be older? The sultan, sensing a threat, ordered the boy beheaded.

Imagine had the sultan and his hangers-on reacted differently. Suppose he had rewarded the bright kid, given him half the treasury, offered him the princess’s hand, and showered him with glamorous royal titles? That would certainly impress the kid; he would then think very highly of the sultan. It would also motivate the young man to come up with other innovations to benefit the sultan and his kingdom. More importantly, others would be encouraged to come up with similar brilliant ideas. One might suggest collecting the impaled fish and selling them in the market, or to convert them into animal feed. Or he may cut the snouts and convert them into artistic carvings of swords and daggers for sale to tourists. Yet another would develop the entire coastline into banana plantations and sell the fruit to passing ships. The possibilities are limitless. But by killing the boy the sultan effectively stifled any original ideas coming from his subjects. As for offering the princess’s hand to the bright young boy, at the very least that would have introduced much-needed “smart” genes into the royal family!

Thinking and creating are solitary activities; the work of individuals, not groups or committees. Great works of art, beautiful music, and creative insights are the accomplishment of individuals. The progress of human society depends on such persons. One innovation begets another, with no predictable outcome. The first man who tried domesticating wild animals could have been killed by strange bacteria like anthrax. Or he could have mistakenly tried to domesticate some primitive rattlesnakes, with equally fatal consequences. The man who tried to tame the rattlesnake probably thought he could solve his food problem and take care of the rat infestation in his cave at the same time. The hunter-gatherer who first planted the seeds could have harvested fruits that turned out to be sour or even poisonous. And the first man to chisel out a tool from a rock could have been blinded by the resulting flying chips, thereby discouraging others from pursuing that lead. Occasionally however, there will be success, and such discoveries would then spread and be improved upon.

Modern inventors may make fortunes out of their inventions. The man who designed the internal combustion engine may have raked in millions in profits and royalty fees, but the benefits to society of his invention are even greater. Bill Gates may be collecting billions for his software, but the value of his programs to society is many times more. Regardless of what his motivations were to write all those wonderful software – greed, curiosity, or a desire to be famous – he has nonetheless created a useful product that enables millions to be more productive in their work. In doing something for himself he has done a great deal for mankind.

This applies to all those ingenious inventors, past and present. We should not envy the bounty they received; rather we should consider the value of their inventions on society. Gates’ word processing software helped me not only in my personal writings but also in my office. In the past I would have to dictate my letters, my secretary would then transcribe them, and I would recheck the final form. If there were errors she would have to retype all over again. Now I do not even transcribe but simply pull down a template, change a few items here and there, and a new personalized letter is produced. Imagine the increased productivity! I do not have to depend as much on my secretary anymore for correspondence.

As for my bookkeeping, I thank Scott Cook, the man who designed the accounting software, Quicken. In the past I would spend literally days at the end of every year trying to balance my books and figure out my taxes. Now these data are readily available with the click of the mouse. The value of the software to me far exceeds whatever fortune Cook received.

Even if these inventors do not have a charitable motive, nonetheless through their inventions they have contributed immensely to society, much more than the average charity giver. I have little tolerance for those do-gooders who want to save society but in the end they themselves need to be helped. I hear ad nauseam Malay leaders out to “fight and save our race.” Often these national “heroes” could not even take care of themselves and their own children – their primary responsibility. In trying to save the nation they could not even save their own family.

To me the best contribution you can make is to take care of yourself and your family first so that you and they do not burden society. By being productive, a “maker” in the economy, you make your contributions. If each of us is a producer, then we can take better care of those amongst us who truly deserve our charity: the aged, the infirmed, and the disabled.

The problem today is that many are content with being “takers” of the economy. Amongst the worse culprits are the modern-day Robin Hoods who righteously proclaim their noble intentions to help the less fortunate by taking from the producers. Many of the social welfare programs of Western democracies are nothing but variations of this sophisticated Robin Hood-type redistributionist mentality.

In his book Makers and Takers, Edmund Contoski suggested modifying President Kennedy’s famous inaugural line: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Instead he suggested that the President should have said, “Ask what you can do for yourself.” I agree. After you have taken care of yourself and your family, then ask what you can do for your country.

When I was in high school in the 1950s there was much consternation on the lack of Malays in science. Malay politicians and leaders were exhorting the young to pursue the sciences. Many senior Malay science students then were under great pressure to mentor and tutor younger pupils. Many showpiece time-consuming tutoring programs were started. Unfortunately with their time taken up with mentoring, many of the mentors themselves suffered and failed in their own studies. Had those students concentrated on their own “selfish” personal goals of first excelling in their own studies, they would not only have helped themselves immensely but also at the same time furthered the cause of Malays much more effectively.

Today I still see many bright young Malay scientists and professionals consumed with trying to better the lot of their race at the expense of their own professional development. One scientist recently declined a prestigious post-doctoral appointment because he was in a rush to return “to serve his country.” I argued that he would serve Malaysia better by being as well trained as possible. He would advance the cause of Malaysian science much better by first being an accomplished scientist. In one’s eagerness to help society one sometimes shortchanges oneself, and ultimately the greater society. Sadly today that young scientist languishes in a remote corner of academia, the nation deprived of his full potential.

Thousands of Malay undergraduates today are diverted from their studies in their desire to “better their race.” They are consumed with political campaigning and ugly street demonstrations to the detriment of their studies. Little did they realize that they would serve society better by first excelling in their studies and then making their own contributions with the skills and knowledge that they have acquired. These students’ behaviors are conditioned by our culture. We can tell much about the values of a culture by seeing upon whom it bestows its honors and rewards. In Malay society we do not reward the producers, rather the takers. Peruse the royal honors lists. Rarely are our scientists, entrepreneurs, builders, and inventors honored. Instead we have these political do-gooders and assorted royal hangers-on. Societies progress best when they reward the producers.

Man has existed for over a million years, but 99% of the achievements of human civilization have occurred within the last millennium. The pace was even steeper within the last century. It is unlikely for humans to have changed greatly biologically within the last 1,000 years. Neither has the global climate and geography radically changed during that period. Yet during this time there have been phenomenal inventions and progress. Such advancements can only be attributed to human ingenuity, and not a function of geography or biology.

For Malaysia to advance, we must pay attention to our most valuable resource: our people. Society progresses best when it allows full expression and freedom for its individual members. And for every member of the community who is a producer, there would correspondingly be one fewer taker.

Totalitarian societies can never aspire for greatness; they seek total control of their members. Every significant progress in human civilization has been the result of the contributions of individuals. The Age of Renaissance that spawned modern Western civilization was a record of exemplary individual achievements in the arts and sciences.

I firmly believe that Allah in His wisdom and justness endows every society with its share of the gifted and talented. What a particular culture or society does with this divine gift will chart its future.

There is a natural aristocracy among men, observed Thomas Jefferson, and the grounds for this are virtue and talent. There is also the artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talent. Malaysia should aspire that its aristocratic class be made up of the virtuous and talented. It must ensure that its policies nurture this noble goal. Equally important we must enhance those elements in our culture that strengthen this ideal and at the same time negate those forces that place obstacles on the path of our natural aristocrats.

In the next two chapters I will cite examples of societies in the past and present to illustrate and amplify the points discussed here.

Next: Chapter 3: Lessons From The Past

Quality, Quantity, and Equity in Malaysian Education #2

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

Quality, Quantity, and Equity in Malaysian Education #2
M. Bakri Musa
[Second of Three Parts]

[In Part One I discuss the crucial role of workers’ cognitive abilities (language skills, mathematical competency, and science literacy) rather than years of formal schooling in determining and contributing to a country’s economic development. In this second part, I address quality, quantity and equity in Malaysian education.]

Trinity of Quality, Quantity, and Equity

The UN lauds Malaysia for meeting – indeed exceeding – the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education. I caution against taking too seriously such praises. The UN works from the base of such countries as Afghanistan and Sub Sahara Africa; they should not be our reference point.

The dilemma of quality versus quantity is old and familiar. Retired Malaysians wistfully remember the old colonial English schools. Yes, they were good, and when you scored an “A” then, you knew that you were on par with those students in London and elsewhere who also scored an “A.” It was essentially the same examination. There was pride of achievement in that.

However, when you cater only to a tiny fraction of the population, you cannot claim credit for the success. Natural selection alone would guarantee you that.

Beyond the quality-quantity dilemma, those excellent colonial schools exposed yet another problem, that of access. Being only in urban centers, they effectively blocked out those in the villages. In a country where the urban-rural divide also paralleled (still does) racial and socio-economic cleavages, that was untenable and a recipe for social disaster.

Thus we have the added problem of equity to the already challenging quality-quantity conundrum. Again, this is not unique to Malaysia. America too faces its own equity problem, with well-funded suburban schools on one hand and dilapidated inner city schools on the other. As with Malaysia, race and socio-economic class compound that cleavage.

It is imperative that we address the trilemma of quality, quantity, and equity simultaneously; they are not incompatible. Achieving quality at the expense of quantity or equity is no victory. Quite apart from the inherent unjustness, it is hard for quality to be consequential in a sea of mediocrity. And if there is no equity in the system, it is simply not sustainable.

Equity at the expense of quality is hollow. That is socialism – yes, we are all equal, but equally poor. As for quantity without quality, that too is futile. Besides, it would doubly hard and more expensive to repair a damaged system; better to create a good one right from the very beginning.

Addressing all three would require a prodigious amount of commitment, an awareness of the obstacles, and a healthy dose of humility. The commitment would be not only of resources but also and perhaps more importantly, in leadership and political will.

Resources are necessarily limited; they must thus be expended prudently. Throwing money at a problem does not solve it; indeed that may spawn even greater problems like graft.

MARA spends billions to educate Malays through its expensive residential schools. The initial idea was great. Gather bright kids from poor rural areas and put them in residential schools where they would get good nutrition, modern living conditions, and superior educational opportunities. The impact would be greater than had resources been thinly spread through village schools, with each getting only a small fraction and not enough to make a substantial difference.

Indeed during the first decade or two, these schools worked as anticipated despite obvious leakages as with ministers’ children also being admitted. One wonders how much more effective it would have been had those children of the privileged been excluded.

However, good ideas, like good durians, have a shelf life. Today with urbanization, there are as many urban as rural poor Malays. As such, fully residential schools make less sense. MARA could instead have day schools in the towns to cater for those poor Malays in the area and thus save money in not having to house and feed them. If these schools were to have hostel facility, let it be limited to those living far away

Scrutinize MARA’s budget for education; the bulk would actually be spent on such non-educational items as feeding and housing the students. Yet in the statistics, those funds would be classified as expenditures on education.

Visit Malay College; the biggest building there is not the library or laboratories, but dormitories. The college will soon open its multimillion-dollar IB center. Again here, the bulk of the space and resources are not for education but simply to house and feed the students. Imagine if the center were to be a day facility (like the old Taylor College), it would be considerably cheaper to build and operate. You could then have three or four similar IB centers for the same cost, and benefiting that many more students, thus achieving both quantity and quality. And if we spread those centers around the country, we would also increase access, thus enhancing equity.

We could further increase quantity without sacrificing quality if we were to restrict entry only after Form III. Taking in students at Form I (the current practice) not only wastes scarce resources but is also psychologically unhealthy. Children should not be taken away from their families at such a tender and formative age.

On a smaller scale but in the aggregate quite large, if we restrict admission only to students in the immediate vicinity, we could save considerable transportation costs. Right now those ‘education’ costs are actually spent on chartering buses to transport students at the beginning and end of the school term. Think of the many library books and laboratory equipment that could be had if the money were not spent on those buses and train vouchers!

It is wasteful to have students from Kelantan attend MARA schools in Johore, while those in Klang Valley have to go to Kota Baru. A generation ago that was a good idea. Malays were parochial then and lacked a national identity. Thanks to the mobility of today’s society, that is no longer the case. So why persist on a resource-wasting practice that no longer serves its purpose?

Returning to Malay College, you would cry seeing the decrepit facilities. This is true of all the residential schools, even relatively new ones. Some MARA schools are now asking parents to take their children home during weekends to spare feeding expenses!

Query the stakeholders and their reflex answer would be to ask the government for more money. A typically Malay response! Yet there is one obvious and ready solution. Charge the parents, on a sliding scale based on taxable income. Even back in my days in the early 1960s there were quite a few who afford the full fare. A few of Mahathir’s children attended these expensive residential schools for free when he was Prime Minister.

With the extra revenue these schools could enhance their curricular offerings and physical facilities. More importantly, the thought of having to fork out those expenses might prompt rich parents to think twice about enrolling their children, thus freeing up slots for children of the poor.

Similar more efficient allocation of resources could be had at our universities. Currently the bulk of the new students have only SPM. The university thus wastes academic and other resources catering to those doing essentially Form VI in the first year. If we were to expand Form VI and restrict university admission only to those from there, the students would not only be better prepared but they would also get more out of the same number of their undergraduate years.

The universities’ matrikulasi and diploma programs are also a colossal waste as these could be undertaken more cheaply and effectively elsewhere, as at schools and polytechnics. Yes, there was a time when concurrently running the diploma program represented the optimal use of scarce campus facilities, but those days are now long gone. Today, our universities should focus only on academic activities that could not be done elsewhere, that is, education at the undergraduate and graduate level.

Scrutinize the typical university budget; the bulk (both operating as well as capital) is for non-academic purposes, as in feeding and housing the students, faculty quarters, and vice-chancellor’s residence. Today’s university is not only an academic institution but also a major hotel with long-term ‘guests’ in the thousands. This of course is a necessity but there is no reason why such non-academic activities could not be ‘out-sourced,’ thus freeing the university of the onerous burden. Marriott, the giant hospitality company, feeds and houses students on many American campuses. If Malaysian universities were to do the same, they could then send their deputy VCs in charge of housing back to teaching and doing research.

Malaysian universities also have extensive housing units for their staff. Again this is a waste. Some American universities also provide housing, but to attract young faculty members who otherwise would go elsewhere. In contrast, housing on Malaysian campuses are for established staff members who are not necessarily academics. Often they stay on long after they have retired!

There is waste at another albeit lower (cost-wise) level. I once met a Malaysian dean at a scientific convention in America. He had first class air ticket and stayed at a five-star hotel. Had he traveled economy and stayed at a more modest facility, he could have taken three or four of his fellow faculty members to that meeting. Imagine the good that would do to his staff and institution!

His excuse was that per civil service code he was ‘entitled’ to first class treatment. There we go again, that entitlement mentality! You cannot get rid of it even after you become dean and vice-chancellor.

Effectively addressing quality, quantity and equity would require efficient allocation of resources. That however, would require another commitment – from the leadership. This is desperately lacking.

Prime Minister Najib exhorts our graduates to discard their budaya menuggu dan pasif (culture of waiting and passivity), yet he is blind to the onerous and highly intrusive rules that govern our students. It is like challenging them to explore the wider world but at the same time keeping them on a tight leash.

Our leaders also keep reminding us of the importance of English, yet they shy away from making that a requirement for university entrance. They decry the lack of qualified workers in science and technology, but examine our public universities and the bulk of the resources are devoted to other than those fields. To reemphasize, effectively addressing quality, quantity and equity would require the commitment of not only resources but also and more importantly, leadership and political will.

Next: Part Three: Clinical Trials in Educational Initiatives

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #14

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

Chapter 2: Why Some Societies Progress, Others Regress

Culture As Society’s Looking Glass

Culture also influences the way one views the world, both physical and social. Culture acts as a collective looking glass. In my earlier book The Malay Dilemma Revisited, I recounted how the British, in trying to encourage Malays to save, increased the interest rates on postal saving accounts (the only banking facility subscribed to by Malays then). To the surprise of the British, Malays did not respond. The greater the inducement (higher interest rates) the less responsive Malays were. It appeared to those British economists that Malays did not respond to the usual economic incentives.

It took the brilliance of an indigenous economist, Ungku Aziz, to appreciate that on the contrary, Malays are indeed diligent savers. Visit any Malay house in the kampong of the past, and there hanging in the roof of the serambi (verandah) was a cut bamboo, tabong, in which the homeowner had put his saved money. When the time of need arrived, the bamboo would be split open and out came the savings. Malays saved for the pilgrimage to Mecca (dear to all Muslims), weddings, and old age. They did not use the conventional institutions because Malays equated interest with usury, which is haram (forbidden) in Islam. Thus Malays viewed the colonials’ raising the interest rates as enticing us to a life of sin. Those white devils!

Ungku Aziz successfully overcame Malays’ reluctance to savings by setting up a mutual fund-like institution, Tabong Haji (Pilgrimage Fund), and declared the returns not riba (interests) but faedah (dividends). Thus by putting a different spin, he managed to overcome what seemed like a monumental cultural barrier. Today Tabong Haji, a vehicle for Malay savings, is the biggest mutual fund in Southeast Asia. Its success is an enduring tribute to the brilliant imagination of one man.

A subtle yet very revealing effect of culture is demonstrated by how the Canadians and Americans view that wonder of nature: Niagara Falls. Many outside of North America would lump the Canadians and Americans into one “western” or American culture. Nothing would offend the Canadians more than to be thus considered. Americans and Canadians may look alike but culturally there is a subtle if not vast difference.

To the Americans, Niagara Falls represented a source of cheap energy, to be harnessed. And they did, building the first hydroelectric power plant and introducing alternating current as a means of widely distributing that energy efficiently. Industry soon rapidly developed on the American side of the falls, with great textile and other manufacturing plants. The area rapidly became an industrial heartland.

The Canadians on the other hand view the waterfalls esthetically, valuing their natural beauty, and not as a resource to be exploited. They want to share with all of mankind this natural wonder, and created a booming tourist industry around it. Niagara Falls is now a traditional destination for honeymooners.

Fast forward to half a century later, with the discovery of cheap oil other industrial centers developed in America. With that the industrial might of the city of Buffalo on the American side of Niagara Falls was eclipsed. Today, many of those great industrial plants of yore are shuttered. Buffalo epitomizes America’s rust belt. Meanwhile on the Canadian side, tourists are still flocking to see this wondrous sight. That same American culture that viewed nature as something to be conquered, tamed, and exploited that worked so wonderfully well in the past is now an obstacle. What has changed is the external environment, in this case the availability of cheap oil.

In discussing the role of culture we have to be careful of two things. One is to discern the truly effective contributory attributes and not just the accompanying epiphenomenona of success; that is, the causes and not the effects. Two, in trying to modify one’s culture to adapt to modern changes, we do not threaten the very integrity of that culture.

There is some squeamishness in discussing culture in the context of human development. Done crudely and with the wrong choice of words, you will be miscast as a racist. It does not help that many who advocate the crucial role of culture often let slip their underlying prejudices and stereotypes. The recent drumbeat of those who loudly proclaim the supposed superiority of Asian values, in their smugness, do let slip and expose their darker side. Confucian values may or may not be the reason for the Asian economic miracle, but this same culture that values familial loyalty and blood ties also contributes to cronyism and clannishness. In its extreme form it gives rise to triads and other secret societies. And if those esteemed Confucian values were indeed responsible for the recent Asian miracle, then why did they fail in Mainland China? Communism could not save China from the perversion of Confucianism, but capitalism (albeit limited) does.

Another example is the potlatch ceremony of Native Americans of the Northwest where the host family would lavishly distribute gifts to invited guests with the full expectations that such gestures would be reciprocated. This later degenerated into an orgy of wasteful expensive exchanges. Anthropologists have long sought an explanation for this phenomenon. To my mind this was an early form of wealth circulation, later to be corrupted into wanton wastefulness and conspicuous ostentations. Whatever the rationale, such rituals were banned in 1884 because of the flagrant waste. The ban was not lifted until a later age of enlightenment in 1951, but by that time the natives had long lost interest in the tradition.

In discussing culture it is good to be reminded of the wise observation of the former Harvard scholar and longtime US Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as quoted in Culture Matters, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” The abolition of the potlatch ritual is one such example of a beneficial cultural mutation brought on through the political channel.

The pertinent lesson here is that culture can be changed, both slowly and abruptly, for the good of its members. It is this observation that provides the impetus and rationale for the modern study of the role of culture in human progress.

Next: The Seminal Role of the Individual

Quality, Quantity, and Equity in Malaysian Education #1

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

Quality, Quantity, and Equity in Malaysian Education #1
M. Bakri Musa
[First of Three Parts]

Quality Education and Economic Development

In referring to the low quality of our labor pool, the New Economic Model Report cites statistics showing that 80 percent of our workers have only SPM level (11 years) of schooling. That surprises me, not the figure rather the fact that the SPM is now viewed as inadequate.

That observation reflects more on the quality of our education system than it does of our workers. For had our education system maintained its quality, and today’s SPM is of the same caliber as the old Cambridge School Certificate “O” Level, then I would argue that our workers are among the most highly educated.

Members of the National Economic Action Council (they wrote the NEM Report) are old enough to appreciate that when they obtained their O-level certificate, they were in command of sufficient intellectual and other skills to prepare them well for life. The same cannot be said of today’s SPM, as the Report clearly implies.

In suggesting that Malaysian workers should have more years of education, the folks at NEAC are falling into the same trap that had ensnared others, of confusing quantity with quality of education. For if our education system stinks (it certainly does!), then it does not matter whether our workers have college degrees; they still will not be well prepared for the workplace, as attested by the already thousands of unemployed graduates.

As declared in the Center for Global Development’s A Millennium Learning Goal: Measuring Real Progress in Education, we should “focus on the real target of schooling: adequately equipping the nation’s youth for full participation as adults in economic, political and social roles.” School completion alone is an inadequate indicator of this. Likewise, generous funding, low pupil/teacher ratio, and physically grandiose schools and universities do not necessarily reflect quality education.

Consider years of schooling. One can readily appreciate that a year at an Indonesian high school is not the same as at a South Korean one. Even within a country, there are significant variations, as with an inner city school in South Chicago and one in the heart of Silicon Valley, California. In California, the students are challenged with calculus; in inner city Chicago they struggle with “consumer math.”

As for pupil/teacher ratio, South Korean classrooms are more crowded than American ones, yet that does not negatively impact the learning of the Korean children.

Earlier cross-national studies attempting to relate workers’ educational levels with a country’s economic performance used such readily obtainable data as the level of funding, pupil/teacher ratio, and years of schooling. Even with such crude measurements economists were able to conclude confidently that workers’ educational levels correlate well with a nation’s economic development.

That however, could be the effect and not the cause. It could be that when a country is rich, it could afford to spend more on education rather than the investment in education making that country rich.

Such studies also exposed some glaring anomalies. Latin American countries have universal education yet their economies have been underperforming. Egypt and South Korea spend proportionately the same on education, with their young having comparable levels of schooling, yet their economies are a universe apart. What gives?

The OECD made a cross-national study of its labor force focusing specifically on cognitive (in particular reading and mathematical) abilities rather than years of schooling. As can be appreciated, this was a much more formidable undertaking than merely comparing national statistics that may or may not be actually comparable. The findings of this much more rigorous study are even more impressive, confirming not only the earlier findings but also explaining the anomalies.

OECD has since refined and expanded its studies to include developing countries. The resulting Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey is sufficiently rigorous to conclude that workers’ cognitive skills are causally (not just statistically) correlated with economic development across a broad spectrum of countries, from developing to developed ones. Meaning, a country could not develop economically if its workers are cognitively not up to par, regardless of the number of years of formal education.

The relevant cognitive skills relate to critical thinking, language abilities, mathematical competence, and science literacy. It should not surprise us that Indonesia, Bolivia and Peru remain economically backward considering that, as per PISA findings, the average reading ability of Indonesian students was equivalent to that of the lowest seven percent of French students; the average mathematics score of Brazilian students was equal to the lowest scoring Danish students; while the average science score of Peruvian students was equal to the lowest five percent of American students, despite the same number of years spent in school.

Malaysia was not included in the PISA study but it did participate in the Third (1999) International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMMS – R). We scored somewhere in the middle, way behind Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. And so is our economy.

Malaysian leaders and educators do not like to be reminded of this; instead they would prefer us to focus on the fact that we are still ahead of Indonesia, Bolivia and Peru.

The American performance in TIMMS was not impressive either, and that prompted much soul searching. By way of contrast, in Malaysia I have not heard of any official pronouncements or seen academic papers on the subject. The only analyses done on the Malaysian performance on TIMMS were conducted by Malaysian-born American scholars.

Americans realize that they need a skilled workforce to create innovative products and start new entrepreneurial ventures that would drive economic development.

The American performance at TIMMS illustrates another apparent anomaly. While American students lag behind those of Asia and many OECD countries, the American economy outperforms theirs. At first glance this would negate PISA’s conclusion.

Two factors explain the apparent American anomaly. The first relates to the American curriculum and system of teaching. Since this is more important, let me dispose quickly of the second factor, that is, American industries, often supported by public funds, devote substantial resources to training and continually upgrading their workers’ skills.

My hospital has a department devoted entirely to the continuing professional education of its nurses, doctors and other personnel. American editors for example, regularly send their reporters to writing classes and to hear from luminaries in their fields.

For contrast, query any Malaysian civil servant on when was the last time he attended a course that would contribute to his professional development, and you would draw a blank. The response would be the same if you were to ask what professional journals he subscribes or reads regularly.

Returning to the more important first factor, while it is true that American students do not do well in science and mathematics, they shine in the critical and creative thinking department. Unfortunately these skills are not tested by TIMMS or indeed any pencil-and-paper test. The American curriculum, both at school and college levels, does not emphasize rote memory and regurgitation at examination time. Instead the focus is on critical and independent thinking. Thus American students have “open book” and “take home” examinations, a concept incomprehensible to Malaysians. American test questions probe your ability to think critically, not regurgitate textbook or lecture contents.

For those who find an “open book” examination incomprehensible, let me suggest some examples. If Hikayat Hang Tuah were a text in an American course, a typical examination question would be:

The central injunction of our Quran is to “command good and forbid evil.” To what extent have the three main characters (Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat, and the Sultan of Melaka) followed this creed?

For Shahnon Ahmad’s Ranjau Se Panjang Jalan, a suggested question would be:

Describe three major ranjau (obstacles) faced by Lahuma (the central character). Imagine yourself the assigned caseworker. How would you guide him to overcome them?

Come to think of it, this would also be a good intellectual exercise for my readers who have read both great works of Malay literature!

As can be seen, those questions make you think. Further, there is no right or wrong answer. Such exercises in critical and creative thinking are the norm in an American classroom. It is this that accounts for the continuing innovativeness, remarkable resilience, and entrepreneurial vigor of the American economy.

Consider this. The American University in Cairo, which has an American curriculum and teaching style, has an enrolment of about 5,000, less than one percent of the total undergraduates in that country. Yet at the Egyptian embassy in Washington, DC, a prestigious posting where only the best get chosen, 40 percent of the staff are AUC graduates. The Egyptian establishment has rendered its judgment as to the quality of that institution, and by implication, the rest of the country’s universities, including its most famous and oldest, Al Azhar.

Undergraduates at AUC are required to take a course, “The Human Quest: Exploring the Big Questions,” where they pursue such queries as, “Who am I?” and, “What does it mean to be a human?”

The Asian ‘tigers,’ their robust economies notwithstanding, appreciate the value and uniqueness of the American system of liberal education; they strive to make their own more ‘American.’

Singapore consciously does this, but is burdened by the fact that it relies on current personnel (teachers, administrators, and policymakers) and institutions to effect these changes. Unfortunately they have been brought up under the old rigid system. I never underestimate the power of inertia, systemic as well as personal. It is especially difficult for individuals to change as that would mean repudiating the very system that had brought them to where they are today.

South Korea imports wholesale American schools, complete with the teachers and texts. As these schools are expensive, only the children of the elite could afford to enroll. In a way that would be a quick and effective channel of changing the whole system as those students are destined to be influential in their country.

Japan brings in thousands of young Americans to teach English under the JET program. Although they are primarily for teaching English, nonetheless their teaching methods and styles would inevitably spill over to the ‘native’ teachers.

Thailand recognizes the limitations of its current personnel and institutions to effect changes. Consequently it attacks the problem frontally by opening up the system. Thus international schools, primarily British and American, are mushrooming there. As in South Korea, these schools are affordable only to the elite. However, because of the ensuing competition from the sheer number of new entries, the costs have come down substantially and these schools are now within the reach of the middle class. Such schools would spawn a new revolution in education in that country.

These countries realize that they have to go beyond the numbers, as with the number of school years or universities, and focus instead on quality. These excellent schools are still far from being the norm; those countries still face the major challenge of access, and thus equity.

How should Malaysia approach the dilemma of quantity versus quality, as well as the issue of equity in her education system? The rest of this essay is my attempt at answering this.

Next: The Trinity of Quality, Quantity, and Equity

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #13

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

Chapter 2: Why Some Societies Progress, Others Regress

“Progressive” Versus “Static” Cultures

In 1999, Harvard’s Academy for International and Area Studies convened a symposium whose proceedings were published in the book, Culture Matters. As expected, the contributors are committed believers of the creed that cultural factors shape economic and political development. The natural corollary would be how can we ameliorate or negate factors in the culture that are obstacles to progress and encourage those that facilitate it.

Societies can be divided into those that have “progressive culture,” that is, a value system that promotes development within that society, and “static culture,” which of course favors the status quo, and thus lack of progress.

Time orientation, with the emphasis on the future rather than the present or the past, is one trait of a progressive society. This future must not be too far ahead as in the hereafter (the preoccupation of medieval Christians and present-day fundamentalist Muslims), rather for the immediate future of the present life. With this emphasis on the future comes the attendant attribute of planning for that future. With the planning comes savings, frugality, and other positive values that are conducive to economic growth. Societies with static culture have little time orientation, have no concept of the future, and thus see little need for planning. They also do not value time. In short, it is the manana culture encapsulated thus: why do today what can wait till tomorrow.

Other attributes valued by a progressive society include emphasis on rationality instead of grand symbolism. Authority in progressive societies resides in institutions and the law, not with individual leaders. Members of a progressive society view the world with optimism. They thank God for having been given the opportunity to enjoy in and benefit from His creation. They consider the world as a place for personal improvement and salvation. Those of a static society on the other hand, consider the world as a temporary abode, and look upon life pessimistically. In a progressive society the members believe in their own ability; in static societies they believe their fate is predestined or based on luck. Education in a progressive society is meant to liberate citizens and to develop their critical thinking; in static societies education is more for indoctrination and to mould citizens into preconceived patterns.

Apart from these attributes, progress depends less on what a particular nation has, rather on how it uses its resources, including and especially its human resources. While classical economists write about comparative advantages, today the decisive factor is competitive advantage. America with its high labor costs can still produce rice far more competitively (that is at a much lower price per unit of output, in this case for example, a pound of rice) than China or Thailand because American farmers are so much more productive. Consequently American rice is cheaper than that from Thailand.

The role of culture cannot be simplistically reduced to repeating the clichés on the importance of hard work, frugality, savings, and education. Chinese farmers are considerably more hardworking than Americans, but Chinese farmers remain poor. Similarly with education; India has millions of college graduates but they ended up as well-educated petition writers and taxi drivers. Thus education has limited potential if it does not emphasize critical thinking and language skills, as well as mathematics and the sciences, or if the system denigrates vocational and technical education. Likewise savings; at one time frugality and the high savings rate helped the Japanese become an economic power but today, those same admirable qualities are choking Japan’s economic recovery by dampening consumer demands.

According to Harvard’s Michael Porter, it is the subset of economic culture – the beliefs, attitudes, and values that bear on economic activities of individuals, organizations and institutions – that are pertinent. These may be either productivity enhancing or conversely, productivity eroding.

David Landes in his book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations suggests that an important invention of Western civilization is the clock. It enables one to keep a precise measurement of time. That invention however, is only valued in a time-orientated society. In a manana culture, it would be a superfluous if not useless invention.

To ancient Arabs, the gifts of clocks and timepieces were valued for their ornamental values. The information those machines gave was of little relevance. When ancient Arabs were told it was 5 PM, their immediate response was, “Is that before or after Asar (late afternoon) prayers?” Their day revolved around prayer times as determined by the position of the sun, not the face of a watch or clock. Today’s Arabs however, after long association with the West and the subsequent absorption of “decadent” Western values as the importance of time, would instead ask, “What time is Asar prayers?” Thus cultural values can and do change!

I am reminded of an incident in Malaysia when I was waiting for a boat to take me to a village across the river. Tired of waiting, I enquired of a fellow passenger when the next boat would arrive. He immediately eyed me suspiciously. Obviously I was a stranger to ask such a silly question. What do you mean by what time the next boat will arrive? It arrives when it arrives! To those villagers, time is meaningless. Only tourists slumming about would want to know precisely when the next boat would arrive!

The attitude towards work is also instructive. In progressive cultures, work is regarded as a creative activity, treasured, and central to one’s life. That is, hard work is valued intrinsically. Work is a form of self-expression, and the culture appropriately rewards productive and creative endeavors. With static cultures, work is disparaged, regarded as a burden, to be done only by the lowest members of that society. Status is measured by how far one is detached from labor or work of any kind. In ancient China, the mark of high status was a pair of clean, callus-free hands with long fingernails.

A differing cultural view towards work can be illustrated by the joke about the White rancher and the Native American Indian. The rancher was upbraiding the poor native for not working. “Why should I?” replied the Indian. “So you could earn and save some money now. Then when you would have enough money you could retire and not work anymore,” admonished the rancher. “Well, I am not working now,” came the immediate retort. True, that native may have reached his nirvana sans working, and sooner than the rancher, but his society would pay the price eventually. The rancher presented only the instrumental value of hard work, and that did not impress the Indian. Had the rancher presented work for its intrinsic value, like making the land more beautiful and productive so it could feed society, that might have impressed the Indian.

Yet another feature of a progressive society is its attitude and receptiveness to new ideas and learning. There is constant yearning to discover better ways of doing things, a curiosity to discover and to explore the world beyond and within. Ancient Muslims certainly had these noble attributes. They avidly learned from the Greeks and Romans. That was the Golden Age of Islam. Much of the contemporary success of East Asian societies is due to this devotion to learning. With the emphasis on learning comes the value of merit. In contrast, static societies do not value learning; family connections, tribal linkages, and casts determine one’s fate, not merit.

Ibn Khaldun’s asibayah, or social capital, is another important attribute. With static communities, trust and identification rarely extend beyond the immediate family and clan; such societies have a very narrow “radius of trust.” They are prone to nepotism and tribalism, and have little sense of charity and philanthropy beyond blood and clan ties. In contrast, a progressive culture’s radius of trust extends far beyond kin and kind.

Religion plays a significant role in static societies. In Medieval Europe, the church was the central authority. Today if one were to plot the influence of formal religion against the economic status of a society, there is a definite inverse correlation. That is, the stronger the formal religious establishment, the poorer the nation. Islam has Afghanistan and Iran; the Catholics have the whole of Latin America and the Philippines.

This does not mean that the members of successful societies are less religious; on the contrary they are indeed very religious when measured by such criteria as their generosity and tolerance. It is very revealing that the two most modern Islamic countries, Malaysia and Turkey, are essentially secular.

Secular status is not a prerequisite for progress; atheistic communism would disabuse one of such a notion very quickly. What I am saying is that the heavy emphasis on traditional religion, with its preoccupation with the afterlife, is a drag on progress. In a later chapter (11) on free enterprise, I will relate how a novel reinterpretation of traditional Christianity by John Calvin and other reformers paved the way for the development of modern capitalism.

The role of culture may be encapsulated thus: It helps steer members of that group into becoming either producers or takers, and this in turn will determine whether

that society progresses or remains static.

Next:  Culture as Society’s Looking Glass

Coming Back Swinging!

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

Coming Back Swinging!

M. Bakri Musa

It is the mark of a great leader that having encountered an obstacle, would bounce right back to plan the next offensive strategy. The results of the Hulu Selangor by-election have yet to be officially ratified, and already Zaid Ibrahim has come out swinging to challenge the legitimacy of the election process and the validity of the outcome. A flawed process produces flawed results.

In springing right back, Zaid demonstrates an admirable ability to focus on winning the war and not be distracted by the loss of a battle. That is the measure of a great general.

Lesser leaders would have taken the easy path out. Those with shaky integrity and even shakier commitment would readily switch sides at the first tribulation, with or without sweet promises. There were many such examples in the recent Hulu Selangor by-election.

Not Zaid. He is suing the Elections Commission alleging that it “allowed intimidation, false information, and unfair and illegal electoral practices by the Barisan Nasional machinery.” Additionally, Zaid is suing Utusan Malaysia for libel.

I hope Zaid would also sue those irresponsible and malicious bloggers who posted doctored pictures of him for the sole purpose of offending Muslim sensibilities. A few such suits would reduce the stench that has descended lately on the Malaysian blogosphere, and do it far more effectively than all the whining of Information Minister Rais Yatim.

Those scumbag pseudo commentators need to be reminded, forcefully if need be as with a libel suit, that freedom of speech does not mean freedom to slander. Even in America where freedom of speech is a religion, you are not free to indulge in false and malicious gossips, at least not publicly, and certainly not on the Internet.

Thus far Zaid has restrained himself on the grounds that those whoring bloggers are anonymous, and that there are too many of them. And like real whores, those bloggers are also being paid for their ‘services.’ I would argue that those are compelling reasons to go after them. Zaid would render the nation a great service if his lawsuits were to reduce the number of these prostituting bloggers. At the very least he would establish case laws on this new medium.

Get to Know Your Leaders

As Zaid rightly reminded us in his post-election press conference, “Every citizen has a fundamental right to vote. But this right is meaningless if he is not able to exercise it because his name is removed from the electoral roll without his knowledge; or if he is intimidated or bribed or given all kinds of inducements to influence his choice.”

Even if Zaid does not prevail in court, his lawsuit would expose the pathetic incompetence and willful negligence of our election officials. That would be educational as well as entertaining. I would love to see them squirm with their repeated “I was directed … !” or, “It is not my job!” responses during cross examination.

Apart from exposing the corruption of our electoral process, Zaid’s lawsuit would also highlight the ethical lapses of our leaders. If future elections were to be cleaner and fairer as a result of his legal actions, then Zaid would have done a great national service.

He should view those legal expenses as an investment towards a better Malaysia. Although it is within his capacity to fund the endeavor, I would suggest that he form a non-profit entity for the sole purpose of using the courts and legal challenges to expose corruption and incompetence, and to seek public support for that purpose. Model it after the American Civil Liberties Union. The response should be overwhelming; the public is fed up. This would also be a productive way for people to channel their anger and help rid the pestilence of corruption in our society.

Zaid is not limiting his battle only to the courtroom. He has extended it into the far more consequential court of public opinion, in particular Malay public opinion, with his “Get To Know Your Leaders” campaign.

Now that UMNO leaders like Mahathir has lowered the bar on what is fair and permissible in an election campaign, Zaid should not hesitate in exposing the hypocrisy of these leaders. Before the election he assured his former UMNO colleagues that their secrets would be safe with him and that he had no intention of following the polluted path they had plunged into. Now that they (and voters) have deemed those details legitimate campaign material, Zaid owes the public a duty in exposing the hypocrisy of those leaders.

In labeling them as hypocrites, Zaid was deliberate in his choice of word. That label has deep Quranic references and thus profound emotive implications with Muslims. It is the most contemptuous condemnation.

There are indications that this label may stick, with Malays responding strongly to it. God knows, Malaysians are already immune to such labels as “corrupt,” “immoral,” or “incompetent,” as reflected by such individuals being repeatedly re-elected. Isa Samad, Chua Soi Lek and Abdullah Badawi are ready examples.

Take corruption. Through their animal greed and perverted ethics, our leaders view the bounties of bribery and hogging of the public trough as Allah’s blessings; hence their ready acceptance of both, as with our ‘humble’ Imam of Islam Hadhari accepting the ‘gift’ of millions worth of prime public land to build his grandiose istana. The label “corrupt” or “breach of faith” is foreign to such leaders, but only the label though, not the deeds.

We are already seeing intimations of the severe sting of this new “hypocrite” label. UMNO Youth’s Khairy Jamuluddin became unusually defensive and hostile when questioned on whether he had ever imbibed alcohol. He never did answer. Home Minister Hishammuddin was quick to disassociate himself from his party’s indulgence in this latest litmus test of alcohol abstention. He knows that this one could strike close to home.

In responding to a reporter’s remark that Mahathir had denied ever drinking alcohol, Zaid pointedly called him a hypocrite. To a Muslim ear, that is a serious allegation; it is not enough for Mahathir simply to dismiss it. He should sue Zaid for such a contemptuous and libelous statement. For Mahathir to do anything less would be an admission that he is indeed a hypocrite. Mahathir already had to defend his son’s directorship of a major brewing company.

During the campaign Mahathir tried to draw the distinction with his owning of horses which were for riding versus Zaid’s, which were apparently for racing. I am sure that those poor folks in Hulu Selangor, consumed with their daily survival, could now appreciate the differences in the two bourgeois hobbies.

Zaid is determined to “out” these hypocrites among our leaders, as well he should. I would go further and assert that Zaid owes the public a duty to do this. As one who aspires to the leadership of our nation, he owes us a solemn obligation to play his part in cleansing our nation of this putrid mess.

Zaid promised to “reveal which casinos they [UMNO leaders] go to, [and] which mistresses they keep.” I sincerely hope that Zaid would not limit his exposé only to our political leaders but also to others, especially our royal rulers and their very public shenanigans.

I hope Zaid’s initiative would open the floodgates for Malaysians who have solid evidence of these high-level chicaneries to come forward a la the Lingam tapes. These leaders deserve our scorn.

Zaid might just encourage some to ruffle through the public records in Las Vegas for those high rollers who have overestimated their skills and their assets. There will be a few Malaysian names.

Premature Jubilation

Judging from the drooling editorials in the mainstream media, you would think that this recent event was an exercise in the overwhelming endorsement of Najib instead of a by-election of a rural constituency with no consequence on the national political balance. Najib’s ministers too joined in with their chorus of cooing. Never mind that despite the big guns that included Najib and Mahathir, and the millions spent on buying votes, all that Barisan could manage was to squeak through!

Najib should heed the fate of his immediate predecessor, Abdullah Badawi. He secured the greatest parliamentary majority in the 2004 elections, only to be humiliated with the greatest loss four years later, and then booted out shortly thereafter. Far from being chastened by this narrow victory, Najib and his gang are already giddy about reclaiming Selangor and securing a two-third majority in the next general elections.

A cautionary note was sounded by Ahirudin Attan, aka Rocky Bru, no critic of the administration. He reminded those Barisan folks of the Ijok state by-election of 2007 that saw another MIC kid defeating a Pakatan big wig, Khalid Ibrahim. Less than a year later in the subsequent general elections of 2008, that kid was sent into oblivion and the whole state fell to Pakatan, with Khalid becoming its chief minister.

Coming back swinging, Zaid Ibrahim is determined to let Barisan win only the battle but not the war.