Archive for July, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #25

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Chapter 4: Modern Model States

The Celtic Tiger

Ireland was synonymous with emigration. Throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries Ireland’s biggest “export” was its people; they were desperate to escape the wretched conditions of their homeland. Only recently was this trend reversed, with Irish émigrés returning to work in the republic’s burgeoning hi-tech and other industries.

In absolute numbers, the Irish immigrants were not large; there were far more Chinese and Indians who emigrated. But as a percentage of their home population, the number of Irish who left was truly staggering. During the Great Famine of 1845-48, out of a population of eight million, two million left: one in four! Imagine what would have happened had a quarter of China’s population left!

Today Ireland is recognized as the largest exporter of software. Among aficionados of fine glassware, Ireland is the source of Waterford crystals. To many Malaysians, Ireland is one of their destinations of choice for university education, especially for would-be doctors.

This remarkable transformation occurred within a period of a generation or two, well within the memories of some currently living. The transformation began in 1959 when Prime Minister Sean Lemass, replacing his ageing old-fashioned predecessor, began a process of economic development by welcoming foreign investments. A common enough strategy for any newly independent country, but for Ireland it was a major change. By 1973 Ireland had joined the European Community, the precursor of the European Union (EU). With that Ireland changed from an inward-looking nation obsessed with nationalism into an equal member of the EU, confidently looking forward to the newly globalized world.

For centuries Ireland was part of England. It came into its own after the obligatory “war of independence” in 1921. To be sure, only part of the island is independent, the mainly Catholic southern counties. The northern six counties remain part of Britain and continue to be a source of much grief, both to the British as well as the residents of Northern Ireland, Protestants and Catholic alike. This partitioning is hotly debated in Ireland even to this day, with one side accusing the other of treachery and selling out. To put things in perspective, Ireland is only slightly larger than Sri Lanka. And the Sri Lankans too are thinking of partitioning their war-weary wretched little island between the Singhalese and Tamils.

Ireland may be independent, but the colonized mentality and the consequent excessive nationalism it bred persisted long afterwards. This uneasy relationship between colonizer and colonized is best captured by the movie Titanic, chronicling the maiden voyage of the luxury liner that was sunk by an iceberg on its way to New York. The ship was carrying the English gentry on holidays, and hordes of Irish immigrants seeking a new life in the New World.

The memorable and recurring scenes were of the rough and uncouth Irish hero confined below deck together with the rest of his countrymen, while the cultured heroine and her fellow English aristocrats were safely ensconced on the luxurious upper decks, separated physically and presumably upwind from the messy crowd below. That such a negative portrayal of the Irish did not evoke much protest reveals how far the Irish have come. I am sure had the movie been shown a generation earlier there would have been howling protests of unfair stereotyping.

As a reflection of the time, the movie does indeed capture the mood and ambience accurately. At the time of the Titanic, signs like “No Irish Need Apply” were prominently displayed in New York, London and elsewhere, perhaps even at the construction site of the Titanic itself. Today, America has seen two presidents who claimed Irish ancestry (Kennedy and Reagan). Mary Robinson, the former Irish President, is a top Human Rights honcho with the United Nations.

When Ireland became independent it went through a period of stagnation and civil strife, a fate shared by many newly independent countries. Having been released from under the less-than-benign English rule, the Irish did not have much desire to be associated with any foreigner. They became inward looking and self preoccupied. The ever dominant Catholic Church became even more entrenched in the lives of the Irish. It is said that Ireland suffered from two forms of colonialism: one from London, and the other, Rome. When they got rid of the first, the second became even more powerful, as if to fill the vacuum left by London.

A 1937 constitutional referendum reaffirmed the supremacy of the Church. Among its provisions was making blasphemy a crime. (Three quarters of a century later in Malaysia, PAS is considering a similar archaic legislation!) The Catholic Church in Ireland may have become stronger and richer because of its “special” position, but the Irish continued with their worldly misery.

The other effect of the ascendancy of the Church was that the few remaining Protestants felt increasingly out of place. They too emigrated, taking with them their skills, capital, and enterprising spirit, the very key elements Ireland needed badly. Today non-Catholic Irish remain an insignificant minority, whereas at one time they were as many as a fifth of the population.

Ireland’s modernization began under Lemass. It became outward looking, welcomed foreign investments, and adopted free trade and less protectionism. It was ready to throw its lot with the emerging European Common Market. The immediate effect of that membership was the bonanza Ireland received in equalization payments and enhanced price support for its farm products. Instead of depending on the lousy prices the British were paying, Ireland was now getting higher European prices plus subsidies for its agriculture.

Trade with Europe and elsewhere expanded. Whereas in 1960 Britain took nearly 70 percent of Ireland’s exports with barely 7 percent going to Western Europe, by 1987 exports to Britain dropped to 34 percent and the European Union increased to 39. Ireland was finally breaking its ties with, or more correctly its dependency on Britain. Ireland may have been independent since 1921, but for the next half a century it remained essentially a client state of Britain, at least economically.

Being bound to the world has its ups and downs. Ireland is now no longer sheltered from global events. Economic woes in Europe and America directly impact her exports and economy. On the whole this outward turn brings immense prosperity. Although Ireland’s per capita income still lags behind those of many EU states, its living standards are up there. More significantly, its people are no longer emigrating, at least not in droves.

The Irish are serious about attracting foreign investments. In addition to excellent infrastructures, Ireland offers low corporate tax rate of only 10 percent, as well as capital grants of up to 60 percent. It also has a highly educated English-speaking work force, a plus for American companies.

Next: The Celtic Tiger (Cont’d)

Chief Secretary Sidek’s “Mother Hen” Folly

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

Chief Secretary Sidek’s “Mother Hen” Folly

M. Bakri Musa

Chief Secretary Sidek Hassan did not acquit himself honorably in so quickly defending federal civil servant Nik Ali Yunus in his very public and ugly squabble with Penang’s Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng.

Sidek’s swift reaction reflects more of a “mother hen” instinct of protecting its brood rather than the cool considered judgment of the head of an organization of professionals, as our civil servants would like us to believe them to be.

A state development officer (Nik Ali’s designation) is pretty far down in the federal civil service scheme of things, yet Sidek felt compelled to intervene. He did, in a rash and clumsy manner. At the very least he should have sought the views of both sides before rendering judgment. That would have been the mark of a true professional; it would also the decent thing to do.

Sidek’s quick reaction to this personnel crisis stands in sharp contrast to his lack of one to another far-from-exemplary behavior of a very senior civil servant. I refer to the utterance of Solicitor General II Yusof Zainal Abidin to the allegation that one of his lawyers was romantically involved with the key prosecution witness in Anwar Ibrahim’s “Sodomy II” trial.

While not categorically denying the allegation, Yusof simply dismissed it, adding this astounding assertion, “What my team does in their own personal time is not my business. Usually, I don’t check on their personal lives.”

A Solicitor General is high up on the totem pole of the civil service; you have to be very senior and capable to reach that lofty position. Yet we have this character failing to recognize the potential implications of a member of his team being romantically involved with a witness, especially a key one. To think that we have as Solicitor General a lawyer who is unaware of the essence of professional ethics and conflict of interest! This reflects poorly on the caliber of persons we appoint to senior positions in our civil service.

Yusof’s inept attempt at minimizing that lawyer’s role in his prosecuting team was equally unprofessional. Yusof conveniently forgot that he was dealing with a lawyer, a professional, in his department, not the office clerk. It does not matter whether that lawyer “was only brought in to help with taking notes, compiling data, evidence.” A lawyer involved in such unethical activities ought to be disbarred regardless of where she works or what she does.

Lack of Professionalism at the Highest Levels

So we have two disturbing displays of less than exemplary behaviors if not outright lack of professionalism at the highest levels of our civil service. One is the Chief Secretary not hearing both sides to the Lim Eng Guan and Nik Ali squabble before rendering judgment, and the other, the Solicitor General failing to recognize a breach of professional ethics.

Contrary to Solicitor General Yusof’s assertion, what civil servants do in private can and do have a major impact on the effectiveness of their official duties. If our top civil servants do not know this, as clearly demonstrated by Yusof’s remarks, then Sidek has a monumental task ahead of him.

Back to the squabble in Penang; in defending the federal officer, Sidek chided Lim for being extreme in resorting to public criticisms of the officer. Sidek also asserted that there was nothing unprofessional for Nik Ali to retaliate openly by condemning the Chief Minister at an UMNO gathering.

Nik Ali was obviously ignorant of the internal channels available to him to express his dissatisfaction; hence his enlisting the help of a political party. With Sidek’s rousing endorsement of Nik Ali’s action, this could well prove to be the new and accepted way. I shudder to contemplate the consequences to the nation generally and the civil service specifically should that be the norm. Perhaps I am being naïve here for this may already be the set pattern; hence the sorry shape we are in.

For his part, Lim claimed that he had sought a private meeting with Sidek as far back as May to discuss the matter, but he (Sidek) cancelled it at the last minute. Had Sidek acted professionally, he would have realized that the request came not from an opposition politician but the chief executive of a major state. If Lim’s assertion were true, then Sidek owes the public an explanation for spurning Lim. Sidek should have been more respectful of federal-state relationships.

Incredibly, Sidek also did not find anything unusual or a breach of the civil service code for a federal officer to be addressing partisan party gatherings. Sidek’s excuse was that he as Chief Secretary had to be present when Najib gave his speeches.

Sidek obviously failed to grasp the essential difference between Najib the Prime Minister and Najib the party president. Yes, Sidek should be by Prime Minister Najib on official functions, but Sidek should not be seen or be in any way officially or unofficially associated with the President of UMNO. Sidek is a career civil servant, supposedly politically neutral and a professional. If he were a political appointee, that would be a different matter.

Sidek’s incredulous assertion and crudely inappropriate behavior did not end there. As Chief Secretary, he manages matters to be discussed at cabinet meetings. That he saw fit to bring this to the highest level revealed Sidek’s warped sense of priorities. I would have thought that the cabinet had other more pressing matters. It was pathetic to see both the Prime Minister and his deputy putting in their dua-sen comments on this lowly personnel matter.

As leader, a major part of Sidek’s responsibility is to solve problems, not create them. He should also be able to anticipate them, and thus try to avoid or at least be ready. With the Penang issue, Sidek not only fails to solve it but he also aggravates it.

More deplorable, Sidek fails to anticipate the potential ugly racial undercurrent to this conflict. This is Malaysia and any conflict quickly acquires a racial hue unless intelligently and sensitively handled. Sidek’s management of this crisis fails on both counts.

The outcome would have been far more favorable, and the nation spared a potentially destructive racial crisis, had Sidek been wise, restrained and professional. In failing to have the earlier scheduled meeting with Lim, and not hearing both sides to the dispute between Lim and Nik Ali, Sidek flunked the most elementary test of leadership – nipping a problem in the bud.

Now that the different parties can be the governing as well as the opposition simultaneously at the federal and state levels, it behooves Sidek to provide guidelines on the proper relationship between civil servants and their political superiors.

Sidek must do this now, well before the next general elections. Failure to do so would risk our nation having to endure again the ugly spectacle that we witnessed at Shah Alam immediately following the last general elections. The next time however, it would be far more revolting. Then Chief Minister Khir Toyo in cahoots with the state’s senior civil servants acted like a bunch of yahoos in destroying state documents and properties, anticipating the change in political leadership. That was criminal. That they were not prosecuted again reflected the lack of professionalism in our civil service.

While he is at it, Sidek should also draw up guidelines on how our diplomats abroad should handle visiting Malaysians, specifically lawmakers from other than the ruling party. These Malaysians should not be ignored, as is the current practice. They are our lawmakers regardless of their party affiliations. Our diplomats should learn from their British and American counterparts in Malaysia and see how they treat visiting Labor MPs and Republican members of Congress.

As an aside, there was another unpleasant dimension to the Shah Alam spectacle of 2004. Selangor was not the only state that saw a change in political leadership; there was also Penang. Unlike Selangor, the transition in Penang was smooth and civilized. Again this being Malaysia, one cannot escape from drawing a racial conclusion to this difference. I am embarrassed to state this, but it is obvious though not talked openly in polite social discourse.

Sidek also needs to scrutinize more closely the performance of his top officers. He should not tolerate such inept and unprofessional conduct as displayed by the Solicitor General. That would be more productive than intervening in the personnel problems of junior officers.

Like his political superior Prime Minister Najib, Sidek talks endlessly of “transforming” the government. He would have a much greater chance of success if he were to first transform himself. He can begin by quitting being the “mother hen” and start being more professional.

Malaysia n the Era of Globalization #24

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Chapter 4: Modern Model States

The Asian Miracle – South Korea (Con’td)

The Koreans were diligent learners; they bested the Japanese. The hard-working Japanese looked lazy in comparison to the maniacal Koreans, so complete and successful the emulation.

The headlong rush towards industrialization carried a heavy social toll. With resources diverted towards heavy industries and the military, precious little was left for social development. Housing prices hit the roof and prices of common consumer goods spiraled up. These social problems were compounded by Parks’ increasingly authoritarian rule and the menacing activities of his Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that seemed to have learned only too well from the excesses of its American counterpart. Legitimate students’ and workers’ protests were brutally suppressed, turning their victims into martyrs.

These fissures in Korean society were exacerbated with the inevitable economic slowdown. In the end Park’s own CIA chief assassinated him in 1979. Park’s social policies offended many civil libertarians but the results of his economic strategies were impressive. And with the tangible successes, the Koreans acquired the confidence to proceed to the next stage of development.

Following another period of political crisis, General Chun Doo Hwan seized power. Aware of his limitations on economic matters, Chun proved to be a diligent and fast learner. He was smart enough to choose seasoned economists trained at prestigious American universities as his advisors. These economists, stooped in the tradition of America’s free enterprise, steered Chun to make major adjustments more in line with modern economic realities. Some of Park’s more ambitious projects that simply did not make much economic sense were either shelved or scrapped, and the Korean economy was gradually liberalized.

Unfortunately Chun suffered a severe setback when North Korean agents assassinated many of his senior advisors in Rangoon in 1983. And like his predecessor Park, Chun’s administration was also mired with repeated scandals of corruption, often involving his immediate family. In the end he too was forced out.

Having liberalized its financial institutions, Korea began to attract foreign money. But these new foreign funds began shifting from direct investments in factories and plants to short-term capital inflows that merely fueled the stock market. Buoyed by Korea’s economic successes and buoyant equity market, foreign lenders were eager to lend and the Koreans equally willing to borrow. The government implicitly encouraged this by lowering interest rates and fixing its currency to the dollar.

Alas, success brought with it its own excesses and evil. With the inevitable overcapacity and the developing Asian economic contagion that began in Thailand in June 1997, Korea too was caught in the maelstrom. These “hot money” fled as fast as they came, leaving Korea and its heavily indebted industries and chaebol in deep financial crisis.

With International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) help, the 12th largest economy was saved from default; so too was the world’s economic system. But that help came with some very stiff terms. Korea had to raise its interest rates to usurious levels, shut down excess capacity, and further liberalize its system. The effects of the remedy are such that to Koreans the acronym IMF stands for “I Am Fired!” Today South Korea has substantially recovered from those dark days of 1997, aided no doubt by the painful structural adjustments imposed by the IMF and the sheer grit and determination of its leaders.

Korea’s recent economic turmoil was often described in apocalyptic terms. A reality check is in order. It was never in any danger of collapsing, but its overeager lenders at Wall Street were, as they were so vulnerably overexposed. Besides, even if the country were to default and its economy collapse, Korea would still have its highly educated and entrepreneurial workforce, the discipline of its people, and all those wonderful infrastructures. And to top it, the political will of its leaders.

The recent setbacks notwithstanding, Korea’s achievements are truly remarkable. Here was a country with no natural resources, been colonized, and then occupied by a foreign army, becoming a top economic power in just one generation.

Volumes have been written on the South Korean phenomenon. Many attribute it to the mysterious and of course superior “Asian values” and Confusion ethics. Alas these pat explanations have ready debunkers. North Koreans too had similar values and ethics, but that did not land them far. In North Korea that same Confucionism gives rise to paranoid xenophobia. Nor can the champions of free markets claim much credit because the government was heavily involved in central planning and in the economy. These are anathema to free market advocates. Indeed the Soviets too would be pleased with Korea’s own series of Five Year Plans.

The Koreans do have something going for them – their respect for learning and value for education. Korea rightly emphasized education, not just any type of education for that could have easily ended up producing highly educated taxi drivers and petition writers as in India, but one that emphasizes the sciences, mathematics, technology, and English. Eager bright Korean students inundate the graduate schools of leading American universities. They are keen on learning from the best. While many countries are content merely with sending their students out, one of the Korean chaebols hired the entire Johnson Business School at Cornell to train its executives!

This heavy emphasis on education is remarkable considering that the nation was also spending heavily on defense. The Korean obsession with education mimics the Japanese, complete with their own version of “cram schools.” The whole country was consumed with education and learning. It is said that during the annual final examination season, the flight path at Seoul’s old Kimpo airport had to be diverted lest the noise would disturb the students! So intent were the Koreans with their cramming that the government had to ban extra-hour tuition so as to give everyone a fair shake. It turns out that the rich were spending inordinate sums on private tuition for their children, putting those from poor families at a distinct disadvantage.

Such obsession with rote learning and passing tests has its breaking point. Today many Koreans are sending their young children abroad for high school simply to escape the meat grinder that is the Korean system. Families had to sacrifice much to do this. Many a Korean father is leading a lonely life back home while their wives are abroad accompanying the children – all to spare their children the torture of attending a Korean school!

A more recent and dramatic phenomenon has pregnant Koreans flying to America to give birth so their babies will have automatic American citizenship. This of course will come in handy when these babies are ready for high school and college. Talk about long term planning!

While the world may sing praises for the Korean educational system, the Koreans themselves are not impressed with it.

Many Koreans, especially those with highly desirable qualifications in the sciences and engineering from elite Western universities, stay abroad to work. After they have scaled the corporate ladder they would be enticed back home to start their own ventures, with generous funding from the state. The initial attempts at attracting expatriate Koreans were clumsy and unsuccessful. Besides, they were busy enjoying their freedom and newfound affluence. To make matters worse, to most Koreans abroad, their memory and image of their homeland were colored by the notorious activities of their CIA in harassing their countrymen.

To their credit, the Korean leaders persisted and eventually overcame the suspicions of young Koreans abroad. Indeed when these leaders visited America they never failed to meet and entice these young Koreans to return home. To many Koreans who were incognito in America, the chance to be wined and dined by their head of state and the promise to be somebody back home was indeed giddying. Many took the offer and successfully contributed to their homeland.

I remember seeing how flattered my Korean colleagues were with the attention they received from visiting Korean dignitaries. The South Korean success spawned many imitators; other Asian nations including Malaysia are now belatedly trying to attract their own nationals to come home. Unlike the Koreans however, Malaysia has yet to learn the fine art of friendly persuasion.

My first experience with this new economic clout of modern Korea was in the early 1980’s. IBM had just released its wildly successful personal computer. Assembled from off-the-shelf parts, the PC was not only a hit with consumers but also carried an obscenely high profit margin for its maker. I was about to buy one when our neighbor showed us his new machine made by an obscure Korean company and at a fraction of IBM’s price. I rushed to the store only to find that the entire stock had been sold with only the floor model left.

That company, Leading Edge, was started by one of those returning Koreans. For a while it humbled mighty IBM. Like South Korea, Malaysia too sent thousands of young students abroad. Unlike the Koreans, Malaysians were doing mainly undergraduate studies, often in the arts rather than science and engineering. Further, while the Koreans gravitated towards top rank universities; Malaysians chose the least competitive institutions. And unlike the Koreans, Malaysians rushed home as soon as they received their degree, to establish seniority in the bureaucracy! Malaysian students did not value American work experience.

Mark Clifford in his book, Troubled Tiger, attributed Korea’s success to its government having its fundamentals right. Korea has a high level of literacy especially for science and mathematics; high savings and investments; discipline and hard working citizens; and a strict program that helps curb its population growth. Clifford’s observations deserve scrutiny because he was among the first to raise the issue of the vulnerabilities of the Korean success story. His book was published in 1994 while the world was fast running out of superlatives to describe South Korea.

Clifford rightly zeroed in on Korea’s weakness: corruption being the way of life from Rhee’s time till today. Corruption is inevitable whenever the state is very powerful and heavily involved in the private sector. We could only marvel how far the Koreans would have been today if only their system were less corrupt.

On a more general note, the American economist Paul Krugman also voiced his skepticism on the sustainability of the Asian economic miracle. In a particularly prescient article in 1994, he predicted that the spectacular economic achievements of many Asian countries were essentially a one-shot affair. Krugman was proven right not long after that. The Asian economic contagion swept through the continent in 1997.

Next: The Celtic Tiger

Najib’s Ill-Disciplined Leadership

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

Najib’s Ill-Disciplined Leadership
M. Bakri Musa

Prime Minister Najib continues his predecessor’s practice of monthly departmental assemblies where he addresses his staff in the manner of a headmaster to his school children. His latest session on Monday, July 5th had him exhorting them to create “an ecosystem [to] recognize top performers.”

You can tell much about a person by the way he behaves in familiar surroundings. Likewise, a leader reveals his true persona when he is in the comfortable presence of his followers. By that measure, Najib’s performance at his monthly departmental gatherings exposes his ill-disciplined leadership.

His delivery was hardly smooth. There were awkward pauses, inarticulate bellowing of his voice, and irritating gesturing with his hands, all to feign emphasis and profundity. While the occasion was flashy, grand and elaborately planned, his speech betrayed his lack of preparation.

There he was in his dark suit, this time outside under the morning but still blistering Malaysian sun, with his ministers and senior bureaucrats standing dutifully on stage in a neat straight row behind him. They too were similarly formally dressed in dark suits with flawlessly matched red ties and kerchiefs, seemingly in rapt attention. They looked more like pall bearers at a funeral, except for their red ties.

More typically these assemblies would be held in one of the maximally air-conditioned and minimally utilized auditoriums in Putrajaya. Then his ministers and senior bureaucrats would be seated comfortably in the front row. At least they would not be sweating in their thick suits, with their faces glistening as they were that Monday.

It is hard to discern the purpose of this monthly ritual. I presume it is an opportunity for Najib to announce major policy initiatives, but there was nothing new or substantive that Monday. For the civil servants however, it was an opportunity to ponteng, to be away from their desks. They were like schoolchildren excited to be away from class. No wonder those civil servants were singing and waving flags! How juvenile!

Najib however, fancies himself not as a headmaster rather a Steve Jobs addressing a grand media gathering. Some fantasy! Najib forgets that when Jobs has his, it is to introduce a new product; an ingenious and effective marketing strategy to create buzz.

Obviously Najib is unaware of the cost of his monthly assemblies. He thinks it is expense-free, as the government already owns the facility and those civil servants and ministers are not paid extra to be there. He could not be more wrong. Like his ministers and staff, Najib spends his entire career receiving a steady paycheck. He has never run a business and thus is blissfully unaware of what it would take to deliver regular paychecks. The concept of overhead or wasteful spending of time and resource is beyond him.

With the assembly held in the morning, those civil servants are unlikely to spend the time interval before and after to do any meaningful work. If you think that they would rush back to their offices after the assembly, then you do not understand the mentality and culture of our civil service. The afternoon too would be wasted in rehashing the morning event.

Functionally, the whole day was a washout as far as effective work was concerned. Those bureaucrats were essentially makan gaji buta (lit. eating a blind salary; fig, not earning their keep) on that day. So much for efficiency! I pity those who had any business to transact with the Prime Minister’s office that day.

With all the talk of “transforming” the government, I would have thought that Najib could think of other cheaper and more effective ways of communicating with his staff.

Pidgin English and Bazaar Malay

The only thing prime ministerial about Najib during the assembly was his attire. As for his speech, he could not utter a complete sentence in either comprehensible English or proper Malay. He would begin in Malay and then without any hint switch into English, and then back to Malay, or endless combinations thereof. Listeners had to switch mental gears frequently and without warning. Najib’s monotonous mumbling with his own peculiar brand of mangled “Manglish” made him sound like a third-rate Filipino politician.

Consider this: “Sistem kita ini mesti kita lihat the entire ecosystem ini, mesti recognize potential high performance, ….” Another, “Kalau kita recognize potential high performance, … kita recognize sumbangan yang luar biasa, those who are prepared to go the extra mile, ….” Such boring and repetitious mumbo jumbo defies translation!

Najib set a bad example especially for our students. How could we criticize them when our Prime Minister could not even string together a complete sentence in either Malay or English? Najib’s mangled “Manglish” was incongruous in such a formal setting. This manner of speaking is disrespectful of his audience. Thank God he did not degenerate into his usual colloquialism as with “Lu tolong gua, gua tolong lu” (You help me, I help you!) mode as he did in the recent Sibu by-election.

Only Zee Avi with her sultry voice could make the mixing of Malay and English sound cute and captivating. Those less talented should stick to one language only, and that includes Najib.

Najib’s favorite buzzword at this last assembly was “ecosystem.” He probably came across that in one of the “pop” business books or articles. I doubt very much whether he fully understands its meaning. An ecosystem is a functional unit where one participant influences and in turn being influenced by the other participants. Altering one could have unpredictable consequences on others as well as the whole.

What Najib meant was culture or environment. Either word would have been more accurate and readily understood, but to Najib they were too ordinary and not as sexy as “ecosystem.”

Another of his choice word is “transformation.” In biology the term refers to the phenomenon where the genetic material is altered, and the organism consequently transformed. It means change at the core (nucleus), and from there to the rest of the cell. The consequent change is thus permanent, profound, affects the whole system, and transmissible to the next generation. Socially, it means profound and irreversible change that begins with the leadership, and then spreads out.

To state it differently and more bluntly, it is Najib who has to change first before he could even dream of transforming Malaysia. For example, to streamline the government, Najib must begin with his own bloated department.

Another of Najib’s favorite buzz word is “quantum,” as in his declaration, “Civil servants would get bonuses, only the quantum is to be determined.” Again, he must have looked that word up and found its meaning to be “quantity” or “amount.” So he simply substituted the more sexy and scientific sounding “quantum.”

“Quantum” as in quantum physics refers to the discrete energy levels associated with electronic orbitals around the nucleus. Thus a quantum increase is a pre-defined or discrete and stepwise increase, and not just any amount. Non-scientists love these big words for their vicarious association with modern science. It only makes them sound stupid.

The Man Is His Performance

My purpose here is not to critique Najib’s vocabulary, syntax or delivery, rather that those reflect the man and his leadership. His fondness for flashy and impressive sounding words rather the more mundane but precise and readily understood is also reflected in his policies. His “1Malaysia” slogan is a ready example – high sounding and introduced with great fanfare. However when he had a chance to demonstrate its core meaning as with repudiating the racist theatrics of Perkasa and the likes of Ibrahim Ali, Najib backtracked. He was easily gertak (scared).

Najib’s mangled syntax with its rojak mingling of Malay and English betrays his lack of mental discipline. Again this is reflected in his leadership. He announced with great flourish the “transforming” of his economic policy, with his NEM supplanting his father’s NEP. At the first resistance, he retreated.

Najib’s gibberish sentences and gabbled delivery also reflect his lack of preparation. Again, that is disturbing. The assembly was planned, not an off-the-cuff press conference. As such I would have expected him to be better prepared. That he was not showed the low regards he had for his audience.

My reaction to Najib’s performance at these assemblies and elsewhere can best be summed up by singer-songwriter Zee Avi’s lilting refrain in “Kantoi:”

Sudah lah sayang, I don’t believe you
I’ve always known that your words were never true
Why am I with you? I pun tak tahu
No wonder lah my friends pun tak suka you!

The exception is that I do not sayang Najib nor am I with him.

Come to think of it, Najib had been up to quite a bit of mischief in his career. However, his position effectively protected him from kena kantoi (busted), at least thus far and in Malaysia. With the French authorities now stepping up their investigation on the scandal-ridden Scorpene submarine deal, this “protection” may soon break from overuse.

For Najib, getting rid of that monthly assembly ritual would be easy, but overcoming all those other deficiencies of his leadership would be far more challenging. Meanwhile we get to ‘enjoy’ his monthly and other spectacles, at least until he kena kantoi!

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #23

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Chapter 4: Modern Model States

Next: The Asian Miracle – South Korea

In the 1950’s, the Filipino government was sending community development officers to the Republic of Korea (ROK) to help the Koreans recover from the devastations of war. Today, the two Asian nations could not be more different in the quality of life of their people.

The Economist noted that in 1964 Zambia had a per capita GDP twice that of South Korea, but by 1999 the Korean figures had rocketed to over 27 times that of Zambia’s. South Korea is now among the top twelve trading nations. Its upward trajectory was briefly interrupted by the Asian economic crisis of 1997, but it is now back on track.

No one would have predicted back in the 1950’s that this Asian nation would be a model of success that it is today. Indeed the first half of the last century had not been kind to South Korea. Yet it succeeded, and did so by flouting every conceivable rule of modern developmental economics. It unabashedly adopted central planning, complete with Soviet-style Five Year Plans and with the state assuming a dominant role in business and the economy generally. The state directed major investment decisions and allocated scant resources, including credit. It was not shy in strategically intervening in the economy when it deemed necessary. South Korea’s strategy had been labeled “guided capitalism.”

Politically, for most of the last half of the 20th century, it was ruled by a series of strong and autocratic military leaders. Indeed Korea’s economic development began with its military dictators.

Korea’s military rulers, through discipline, hard work, and commitment to trade, transformed the nation. The generals treated the country like an army at war, with strict regimentation, top down command, and single-minded pursuit. They brooked no insubordination or opposition. The whole nation was conscripted into a war mode to develop the country. This war mentality, partly egged on by the very real communist threat from the north, pervaded every sphere of South Korean thinking and action. Every opposition and obstacle had to be crushed; every resource of the state had to be focused to this overriding goal of economic development.

South Korea’s remarkable economic achievements were not however, accompanied by a comparable social and political development. Nonetheless with it joining the ranks of the developed nations and with the increasing affluence of its citizens, democratic reforms and increased freedom and liberties for her citizens must necessarily ensue. Besides, there is no value or joy in having democratic freedom while the citizens are starving. Look at the Philippines and Haiti. What a mess!

The luxury of choosing one’s leader is just that – a luxury. It is more relevant that the leader, whether anointed, elected, or one who simply grabbed power, be competent and dedicated. As long as a leader is capable, it matters not how he achieved power. The only advantage of representative democracy is that when you are stuck with a bad leader you may have a chance to get rid of him peacefully at the next election, assuming of course that it would be free and fair. The disadvantage is that you cannot blame anyone else for choosing that leader.

Whatever may be said of the South Korean generals, no one would dispute that they were indeed competent economic managers and pursued progressive economic policies. They may not have been enlightened in the views of modern libertarians, but they had achieved their primary goal: to make sure that their people were not starving. Having accomplished that, the South Koreans could now look forward to loftier goals, like greater prosperity and increased freedom.

For a significant part of the 20th Century Korea was a Japanese colony. Japan annexed the country and did all it could to annihilate the Korean culture and identity by absorbing or more correctly, subjugating the Koreans. The teaching of Korean language for example, was prohibited and Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names. The Korean economy was entirely controlled by the Japanese. Had it not been for Japan’s defeat in World War II, the Koreans would more probably be by now a lost minority ethnic entity in a greater Japan.

The Japanese defeat gave the Koreans their independence. Unfortunately the nation was immediately trapped in the emerging Cold War, with the Americans and the Allies on one hand, and the Chinese and Russians on the other. The Korean War was settled with the present boundary between North and South arbitrarily set along the 38th parallel.

The Korean War and its aftermath took hundreds of thousands of lives and brought untold misery to millions more, borne primarily by the Koreans themselves.

Right from the start South Korea was at a distinct disadvantage compared to North Korea. Most of the industries were in the north, including vital chemical plants to produce fertilizer. Even electricity came from the hydroelectric generators in the north. The railroad in the south too was dependent on coal imported from the north. To compound the challenges, most of the industries had been owned and operated by the Japanese. And with their exodus following World War II, these factories were essentially abandoned.

At the same time South Korea was inundated with refugees from the north and the emigration of Koreans from Japan. Between 1945 and ’46 its population swelled by a whopping 21 percent!

Korea, or at least that part south of the 38th parallel, “elected” Syngman Rhee as its first president in 1948. This Princeton-educated man proved that one can get an Ivy League education and yet remain very much provincial, absorbing none of the refined aspects of American culture. He turned out to be a run-of-the-mill dictator, ostensibly cloaked in the niceties of democracy. Rhee epitomized many Third World leaders, past and present. They may have graduated from top Western universities, but apart from the parchment papers they collected they have learned nothing about what makes the West great. They must have not ventured much beyond the lecture halls and libraries of those august institutions during their student days. They were content being academic “muggers.”

Rhee did learn something about America: how to play on her vulnerabilities and obsessions with its own version of freedom and democracy. He milked America to the maximum such that for most of his tenure, the main if not the only contributor to Korea’s budget was American foreign aid. And the main source of income for Koreans was the spending money of the well-paid American GIs and foreign aid workers stationed in Korea.

Rhee’s corruption and manipulation of the Korean constitution and institutions continued while his nation was spiraling down the abyss. The ending was predictable. In the end he was forced into exile to a comfortable life in Hawaii in 1960, leaving his country in a total mess.

The military, the only disciplined organization left, staged a coup led by General Park Chung Hee in 1961. Park treated the country as a strict sergeant major would an ill-disciplined bunch of peasant youths. He was banking that after such a rigorous training, the youngsters would be so pleased with their new spit and polished look that they would forget the ordeal they went through and be forever grateful to the drill officer. Park was fully aware that he did not have political legitimacy but was counting that with economic success he would win the hearts of his people. Reaching the heart via the stomach, a time-proven strategy!

Park’s first five-year economic plan emphasized industrialization, especially for exports, with heavy state involvement and direction. Despite the well-known natural antipathy the Koreans had for the Japanese, Park, having spent his youth in Japan, did not hesitate in learning from his former colonial master. His strategy was not only to emulate the Japanese but also to better them. Industrial workers were cowered and strikes banned, with the single-minded purpose of beating the Japanese at the industrialization game. Exports were encouraged through various subsidies, tax incentives, preferential access to capital, and generous depletion allowances. Savings were similarly encouraged.

The Koreans were indeed diligent students, copying the Japanese in every way, including producing their own version of the Japanese keirutsu (conglomerates) – the chaebol.

Park was a tough taskmaster but he certainly had vision. He excoriated his people for their poverty and primitive ways and exhorted them to change their ways so that they would be resilient so as not be colonized again. To Park, Korean farmers were a lazy bunch, given to drinking and gambling. (Park’s remarks reminded me of Mahathir’s frequent outbursts on the indolent ways of Malays.) Using nationalistic appeals together with bold economic planning, Park embarked South Korea on an ambitious path of economic development. He built the spanking new Seoul-Pusan expressway not only because it was a much needed infrastructure but also to showcase Korean engineering talent and construction capabilities. He also encouraged and supported South Korean construction companies to secure lucrative contracts abroad, especially in the Middle East.

In contrast to earlier industrialization policies based on import substitution, Park strived for exports. He set and repeatedly raised his targets, all along exhorting his people. He made a giant leap forward with his ambitious Heavy and Chemical Industries (HCI) Plan, again geared primarily for exports.

Nor did Park neglect the countryside. In 1971 he launched a massive rural development scheme, Saemaul Udong (New Village Movement), aimed at improving living standards and income for the villagers. Park also had a more noble but nebulous goal of promoting “spiritual enlightenment.” His rural development plan began in a highly dramatic and very physical way. He ordered the traditional thatched roof of farmers’ dwellings be replaced with modern corrugated metals, and later, concrete tiles. Between 1972-79, nearly two and a half million rural homes sported this new roof. Never mind that these modern materials provided no insulation against the bitter winter cold or searing summer heat. They looked modern compared to the thatched roofs, and that was what Park was trying to achieve. Additionally he ordered village streets and housing facades be straightened. He wanted no untidiness and messiness. Park’s style was more into military barracks: cheap, clean, purposeful, and spartan. He brought a very visible physical change to the countryside.

Rural development did not end with the cosmetic improvement of farmers’ homes. Park brought in electricity, massively subsidized, so peasants could install radios and televisions that would bring them into contact with the modern world. Roads, bridges, and irrigation channels were built, all to modernize the countryside. And with that physical transformation, he hoped to bring about comparable social and psychological changes in his people.

Like everything else associated with the military mindset, in the end these rural development programs degenerated into means of social control of the population – Park’s “spiritual enlightenment.”

Next: The Asian Miracle – South Korea (Cont’d)

Jokers Without Any Sense of Humor

Monday, July 12th, 2010

Jokers Without Any Sense of Humor

M. Bakri Musa

Banning books in Malaysia is now such a routine matter that it is no longer newsworthy. That is the scary part.

So when the Associated Press carried the news of the Malaysian government banning Zunar’s books of political cartoons, that perked me up especially when the news item was also picked up by major American papers such as the Washington Post and influential online portals like the Huffingtonpost.com.

I have long been a fan of Zunar, or Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque, ever since his cartoons appeared in Malaysiakini.com. What struck me then were his astute observations, brazen courage, and devastatingly powerful caricatures. Much to the discomfit of our politicians, Zunar has only gotten better. Now he is even more biting, cuts even deeper, and as reflected by the government’s action, can goncang (shake) even the most powerful.

In trying (that is the appropriate and operative word) to explain the government’s action, Home Ministry Secretary-General Mahmood Adam said, “[The books] have been banned for their contents that can influence the people to revolt against the leaders and government policies.” Adding, “The contents are not suitable for and detrimental to public order.” To think that this joker not only lacks a sense of humor but he is also the ministry’s highest civil servant!

Another way of looking at the Secretary-General’s “explanation” is that Zunar has really goncang powerful folks. Or that those seemingly powerful people are made up of softer stuff. Zunar is not at all perturbed by the government’s latest stupid action. On the contrary, like a Great Dane facing the irritating yelping of a diminutive pariah dog, Zunar is ready to pounce back, and with not an ounce of mercy.

The publisher of his One Funny Malaysia, one of the banned books, has already initiated legal action. As for Zunar, a cartoonist for over 20 years, his dismissive response was, “They can ban my books, they can ban my publications, but they can’t ban my mind! I will not stop drawing till the last drop of my pen.” That may not sound like a Great Dane ready to pounce on a pariah dog, more the flicking off an irritating flea. But then that’s what Great Danes do to lull their prey. So I am really looking forward to Zunar’s next cartoon following this latest government folly.

Zunar now has three prime ministerial notches on his cartoon belt. The materials on the first, Cartoons on Tun and Others, showed that Zunar was not in the least in awe of or intimidated by the most powerful and mercurial personality. He was merciless in his treatment of Mahathir. As Zunar rationalized in his introduction, “Why pinch when you can punch?” Way to go, Zunar!

Some would claim that at times he punches below the belt. I disagree. Rather that his victims have their belt and samping way too high!

Zunar’s critics take exception to his caricaturing Mahathir’s nose. Like Jews, we Malays are sensitive about the shape and size of our snouts, and Mahathir has been known to express his irritation to this less-than-flattering caricature. Beyond that, there was nothing more.

One of Zunar’s most memorable cartoons depicts a scene right after Mahathir’s shocking announcement of his resignation. Many, and not just his supplicants, were pleading for him to change his mind. There was Zunar appearing in his own cartoon lamenting whose nose he would be drawing now that Mahathir would be gone!

Zunar’s fame has spread despite his intentionally bypassing the mainstream media. Kowtowing to the establishment or the powerful is just not his style or mode of working. That is what makes his work so refreshing and, well, Jebat-like. Luckily, as Amir Muhammad noted in his preface to one of Zunar’s collections, “[His] talent matches his bile!” I would also add, “And courage too!”

Just as he was merciless with the mercurial Mahathir, Zunar was no less sparing with Mahathir’s pliant successor Abdullah Badawi. In many ways Abdullah was more of a challenge as he was so pathetically out of his league. Too tough and you would appear to be picking on the village idiot. That could backfire, evoking sympathy instead. At the same time you have to puncture the idiot’s increasingly uppity pretensions. A delicate balance!

Zunar was more than up to the task. The one cartoon that best captures Abdullah’s tenure is one showing him slumped in an oversized chair issuing endless edicts: “Zero Corruption! Zero Red Tape!” followed by a series of Zs ending with his snoozing in his chair. That summarizes better than the kilobytes of critical commentaries by erudite columnists. The chair was just a tad too large for him, or the man too small for it, and Abdullah was reduced to uttering useless slogans. He succeeded only in putting himself to sleep.

One would expect Abdullah’s successor to have minimal difficulty to shine. Alas that was not to be with Najib Razak. As for the reasons, you could torture yourself and read the various dry commentaries by the pundits and academics, or you could spend RM20 and get a copy of Zunar’s latest book, the one banned by the government, “1 Funny Malaysia. The title obviously pokes fun at Najib’s 1Malaysia slogan. You will be entertained, as well as being educated.

Thanks to the inefficiency of the Home Ministry, the publisher already sold the first printing of 5,000 copies before the ban. With Internet marketing and with many of Zunar’s cartoons readily available free online (www.cartoonkafe.com), the Ministry’s ban is, like all the government’s actions, all fury with no significance. That makes the whole banning exercise less scary than first thought.

The cartoon cover of the banned volume is illuminating enough. It shows Najib commanding his ship, KD Altantuya, presumably the newly-acquired and exorbitantly expensive submarine that would not sink, shouting out orders to no one in particular. Or perhaps no one cared to listen! Notice the ship’s name!

In other cartoons Najib is reduced to his oversized glasses, pin-sized eyes, and prominent forehead, an unmistakable befuddled deer-in-the-headlight look. That also describes Najib’s leadership – befuddled.

Zunar was equally tough on all our leaders. Not so the reactions of his subjects. I am certain that both Mahathir and Abdullah were none too pleased to be so unflatteringly caricatured and mercilessly skewered by Zunar. Nonetheless, very unlike Najib, they did not see fit to ban Zunar’s books or undertake any such nefarious actions.

That is the significant difference between them and Najib, a “transformation” in our leadership that should scare us. It is noteworthy that while the world notices this as evidenced by the extensive global coverage of the ban, the matter receives scant attention in the mainstream Malaysian media. Nor has the ban attracted much commentaries or editorials. That too is equally significant, and scary.

Zunar, we need you now more than ever. We need you to keep them straight when they strayed, soften them when they become sclerosed, and bring them down a notch or two when they get too uppity. May the ink in your pen never run dry!

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #22

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

Chapter 4: Modern Model States

The lessons of history are certainly instructive. In the previous chapter I explored how the ancient Arabs responded to internal challenges posed by the message preached by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The European Reformation was also a challenge from within to an increasingly centralized, corrupt, and autocratic Catholic Church. With the Meiji Restoration, superior outside forces challenged an already weakened Japanese society.

Current interpretations of these long ago events are just that—interpretations. Had the Japanese won World War II and remained an imperial power today, I am confident that we would have a much different take on such seminal events as Commodore Perry’s intrusion and the Meiji Restoration. Similarly, had the Catholic Church succeeded in nipping the bud of the reform movement and maintained its dominance, Martin Luther would literally have been in the ashes of history; he would have been burnt at the stake.

For these reasons, more contemporary examples are needed to illustrate my points on human progress. In this chapter I will delve into how previously backward and poverty-stricken states of the 20th century managed to transform themselves into modern nations. These transformations were truly remarkable, with profound and irreversible changes taking place within a short span of time, often within the memory of their current citizens.

I choose three examples from three different continents, each representing a different set of culture and race. First is South Korea; its transformation was truly miraculous, especially when compared to the fate of its cousin to the north. North and South Korea began at about the same stage of development after suffering the devastations of WW II and the Korean War. Today, the south enjoys a First World standard of living (recent economic setbacks notwithstanding) and is poised to join the ranks of developed nations. It successfully hosted the spectacular 1988 summer Olympic Games. South Korean brands of consumer goods flood the world’s market.

Meanwhile the North Koreans are barely surviving and are repeatedly threatened with famine. Same biology, same geography, and essentially same culture; the only difference is their economic system, and of course, their leadership and institutions.

Across the Eurasian continent and with an entirely different race, culture, and religion, is that little island of Ireland. This Celtic “tiger,” just west of Britain and long colonized by her, has come a long way from when it was best remembered as a source of poor immigrants, to become one of the powerhouses in the hi-tech industry.

There are many other countries that have successfully transformed themselves. I purposely choose not to use two close and ready examples: Hong Kong and Singapore. With their small populations and landmasses, they do not hold many relevant lessons for Malaysia. By American standards, Hong Kong and Singapore would be considered midsize municipalities. Just as there is a quantum leap in the skills required to manage a large corporation as compared to running a simple roadside stall or “mom and pop” operation, so too there are significant quantitative and qualitative differences in leading a large and diverse nation as compared to being the mayor of a city. The leaders of Singapore and Hong Kong may have fancy head-of-state titles but functionally they are just mayors.

My third example is a negative one, of how not to do things. Using a negative example is frowned upon as a teaching technique; nonetheless sometimes a principle is best illustrated by doing so. Argentina, endowed by nature’s bounty was, at the beginning of the 20th century, one of the richest countries and its citizens enjoying one of the highest standards of living. Today however, it is an economic basket case. As of my writing it was also undergoing a political crisis, having gone through five heads of state in as many weeks. Argentina epitomizes the whole of Latin America; of opportunities missed and good fortunes squandered.

Argentina is also a tragic reminder that nations do not prosper simply because they have been blessed with abundant natural resources. Indeed through human greed, extravagance, and folly such valuable God-given assets can easily become liabilities. One needs only look at the Arab states and Brunei to be reminded of this sober reality.

None of the three countries I have chosen as examples here are exactly like Malaysia. I will recap the differences and similarities, and the lessons for Malaysia, after we explore each country.

Next: The Asian Miracle – South Korea

Making Monsters Out of Our Students – The “Lucifer Effect” on Our Campuses

Sunday, July 4th, 2010

Making Monsters Out Of Our Students – The “Lucifer Effect” On Our Campuses
M. Bakri Musa

I commend Defense Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi for his swift action in reassigning the commandant of the Royal Military College (RMC) over the death of one of its students, Naim Mustaqim, during a ragging incident. Earlier, the college had expelled the alleged abusers. Likewise, I praise Higher Education Minister Khaled Nordin in issuing a stern warning of his “zero tolerance” for ragging in our public universities.

Ragging is now entrenched in our universities and residential schools, creating monsters out of these students, the “Lucifer Effect” being operative (more on that later). The ensuing scars and damages are consequential, both physical and psychological. A few like Naim get killed.

Ragging is one of those unsavory “traditions” of the colonial British that Third World natives have picked up with a vengeance. We denigrate everything associated with the colonials but somehow when it comes to ragging, we have no qualms in quickly adopting it. We have bested the Indians and Sri Lankans in the savagery of our hazing rituals.

The only effective way to end this pestilence that has plagued our schools and colleges is to initiate a “shock and awe” intervention that would impress everyone on the evilness of this hitherto foreign ritual. We have to do that now before we have other innocent victims.

Strong Individual and Collective Actions Needed

We need aggressive actions at both the individual and system levels.

At the personal level, we must help the family of Naim Mustaqim launch lawsuits against not only his alleged abusers but also the RMC authorities and personnel, including the reassigned commandant. They have been negligent in failing to provide a safe environment for those under their care. The government must also initiate criminal proceedings; those in supervisory positions including the wardens and teachers should also be prosecuted.

Naim’s family will not get their young son back, but by instituting civil and criminal actions we would make those responsible pay for their culpabilities. We cannot condone criminal behaviors lurking beneath ‘tradition.’

It is reprehensible that those who have been given the awesome responsibility for nurturing our young have neglected their duties, resulting in one promising young man being killed. Naim’s teachers and wardens had been with him for over six months, literally day and night, and yet they failed to notice the signs of his desperate need for help. I wonder how they would feel if their loved ones had been similarly neglected.

The first order of business for RMC’s new commandant must be to impress upon his staff their obligation to look after the safety of those under their charge. His second order of duty would be to punish those who had let this ugly situation occur. Those are his two immediate priorities, and not, as he was quoted, “to safeguard the college’s image and moral of students, staff, parents and the public alike.”

At the systemic level, the responsible ministers should issue directives to the vice-chancellors as well as principals of our universities and residential schools indicating that they would be held responsible for any ragging on their campuses. Were that to happen, they would suffer the same fate, or worse, as the RMC commandant.

I would like them to draw up specific rules and lists of “don’ts,” and the penalties for infringements, be given to student and parent (in the case of residential schools) before these students enroll. They (as well as their parents) would have to sign that document acknowledging their full understanding of the content.

Be strict for a few years and we would effectively get rid of this scourge. When the present generation of students who had been brutalized by ragging graduate (in three or four years), then this odious practice would end. Then our new students could look forward to coming to our campuses for a different experience, one more welcoming and nurturing.

I was privileged to be spared from attending our local university and thus had a vastly different college experience. One of the sweetest and most comforting words that greeted me on my arrival on campus in Canada decades ago was an upperclassman extending his hand and saying, “You must be Bakri, from Malaysia! Hi! I am Ray, your resident advisor!”

Of course during orientation week we still had to wear that silly beanie and were made to steal apples from the nearby orchards, but nothing beyond that. What I remember most was my seniors helping and guiding me. It was to them that I turned to in seeking advice on classes and what was appropriate to wear to campus functions.

That is what orientation week is supposed to be, to help incoming students adjust to their new campus environment.

Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil

While I advocate severe punishment for the abusers of Naim Mustaqim, I am mindful that these kids are not intrinsically evil. On the contrary, what we have learned from the Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s famous prison experiment in 1971 is that those students who became torturers (and in Naim’s case, murderers) were normal human beings. Given a different set of circumstances they could very well become heroes.

Zimbardo’s “Lucifer Effect” (after Lucifer, God’s favorite angel who turned evil; the Quranic version is Iblis who, banished by Allah from Paradise to earth for disobeying Him, made it his mission to convert as many mortals to his new evil and Satanic ways) is what made otherwise ordinary soldiers into sadists and murderers in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Those who have read the accounts of Kassim Ahmad, Syed Hussin Ali, Raja Petra and others incarcerated under the ISA would immediately recognize the local variation of this Lucifer Effect. The difference between Kamunting and Abu Ghraib is merely a matter of degree, not kind.

In his experiment, Zimbardo recruited ordinary college students looking to make a few dollars as subjects in a human psychology experiment simulating the prison experience. What he discovered about human nature from that innocent experiment shocked him, and forced him to prematurely terminate the study.

What Zimbardo discovered was that students who were randomly assigned to be “guards” soon became vicious, senselessly brutalizing and inflicting gratuitous punishments on their “prisoners.” Even though those students were aware that they were being monitored and that it was only an experimental situation, nonetheless they persisted in their brutish ways.

There are other experiments along the same vein where the social situation, in short peer pressure, made the subjects do things they would not otherwise do.

The Lucifer Effect illuminates how otherwise good people can turn evil, given the “right” circumstances. Humans are like pet dogs. In the calm and nurturing environment of a quiet home with a caring master, it is the most docile, playful and obedient pet, indeed almost angelic. It would not bark even if your toddler were to yank its tail. However, let it loose with his canine friends to maraud in the neighborhood as a pack at night, and they would become vicious predators.

We must make sure that the environment in our schools and universities would not turn our promising young students into evil fallen angels. Those in charge, from the ministers down to the teachers and custodians, have an awesome responsibility to make sure that this would not happen. If they fail, then they must be made to pay a stiff price.