Archive for August, 2010

Beyond The Rituals of Ramadan

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

Beyond the Rituals of Ramadan
M. Bakri Musa

Involved as we are in the many rituals of Ramadan (beyond the integral daytime fasting), it is not surprising that we fail to appreciate much less live the true spirit of this holy month. This is especially so if we live in a predominantly Muslim country like Malaysia.

Muslims hold Ramadan in reverence because it was the month in which the first revelation of the Qur’an was given to Prophet Muhammad. It was a message for “all mankind, at all times, and till the end of time.” It was a message that would later change for the better not only the Arabs but also the world.

Ramadan thus should be a time for us to re-commit to the central message of the Holy Book. As Eboo Patel so eloquently wrote in the inaugural Ramadan series of the HuffingtonPost.com, “Ramadan is about remembrance and return – remembrance of the origins of Islam, and return to its essence.”

The Qur’an, was revealed “as a guidance for mankind [in] distinguishing between right and wrong,” (Surah Al Baqara 2:185), with its recurring theme of “commanding good and forbidding evil.”

“Be a community that calls for what is good, urges what is right, and forbids what is wrong; those who do this are the successful ones,” commands Surah Al Baqara (2:177).

Goodness does not consist in turning your face towards East or West, the Surah continues. “The truly good are those who believe in God, and the Last Day, in the angels, the Scripture, and the prophets; give away some of their wealth to the needy; liberate those in bondage; keep up their prayers and alms; fulfill their pledges; and remain steadfast in misfortune, adversity, and times of danger. These are the ones who are true, and it is they who are aware of God.”

The Ugly Reality

Alas, the reality in so many Muslim countries today is so far detached from those lofty Quranic messages.

Peruse the headlines during this Ramadan, filled with deadly wars, civil unrests, and suicide bombings. While Malaysia is fortunately spared such horrific tragedies, nonetheless the lead items grabbing the headlines in the mainstream as well as the alternate media tell of an ugly reality not much different from those seen in other Muslim countries. If there were indeed differences, they would be merely in degree, not kind.

Consider our current diplomatic squabble with Indonesia over God knows what this time. The Indonesians, we are repeatedly reminded, are our kin and kind; we share the same faith, culture, and language. We even affectionately and respectfully refer to them as “Abang!” (older brother).

Yet there was precious little brotherly love or generosity in the spirit of Ramadan displayed in the recent demonstrations at the Malaysian Embassy in Jakarta, what with human excrements thrown into the fray! Perhaps that was the best the Indonesians could hurl at us!

Back at home, there are the two ugly, loud-mouthed and self-professed champions of bangsa, agama dan negara (race, religion and nation) – Khairy Jamaluddin and Ali Ibrahim – going after each other in the hideous tradition of our Malay kurang ajar.

Don’t those two, and countless others, pause to reflect just a wee bit on the meaning of Ramadan as they go through their hunger pains during the day, or when they partake in their generously-sponsored iftars? What could they be thinking of as they then perform their prayers?

Consumed with the rituals of Ramadan, they remain blissfully unaware of if not downright contemptuous of its essence.

I would have expected them to be guests at each other’s iftars, in the spirit of Ramadan. If they cannot do that, then at least have the decency to be civil with each other during this blessed month.

If these Muslim leaders are downright crude and rude with each other, imagine their attitude towards non-Muslims! I pity the poor freshman MP from Serdang, Teo Nie Ching. She had in the best tradition of Ramadan come to a surau in her constituency to share in the iftar and to present a modest donation from the state. She had rightly assumed that to be her role as their representative to Parliament.

She must have been blown away by the storm of controversy that subsequently erupted. I am not at all surprised that characters like Khairy Jamaluddin and Ibrahim Ali would seize the opportunity of Neo’s visit to the surau to expose their hideously ugly chauvinism by condemning her. That would be par for the course for any ambitious but untalented leaders everywhere.

I am however severely disappointed in the reaction of the Sultan of Selangor. According to the state religious council (MAIS – its Malay acronym), the sultan was “murka dan dukacita” (angry and disappointed).

The sultan should not be so quick to react; he should at least wait for the full facts. Ramadan after all calls for patience and restraint. He should also remember that he is not only the head of Islam by virtue of being a sultan, but he is also sultan to all Selangorians, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, and that each should be treated no differently from the other. It is time to tell our sultans that we expect more from them if they wish to remain on the public payroll.

For her part, Teo was quick to put in her formal apology to the sultan. She should not have done so. She should have the courage to stand by her conviction that she had done nothing wrong. In this she can rely on the arguments put forth by Tok Guru Nik Aiz and Datuk Asri, the former Mufti of Perlis. As a Muslim, I would rely on these two luminaries on matters pertaining to Islam rather than from the likes of Khairy, Ibrahim Ali, or Datuk Sharizzat.

Things Can be Different If We Will It!

Things need not be this way; it is within us to change them.

Consider that on the first Friday of this Ramadan, President Obama continued a longstanding tradition of hosting a White House iftar with Muslim and non-Muslim guests. Mosques in the San Francisco Bay area, like many elsewhere, continue the tradition of “Open House” where we invite non-Muslim community members to join us for iftar. Yes, they sit and eat with us in the prayer area. We do not have the luxury of separate dining and praying areas!

In an earlier Ramadan PBS, the public television channel, chose the occasion to premier its highly-acclaimed series on Islam. This Ramadan, the HuffingtonPost.com, a highly influential Internet news and commentary portal, initiated its faith and religion feature by posting a series of articles on Islam. These are non-Muslim organizations and entities that sponsor these wonderful and highly informative initiatives. They deserve our praise. Better yet, their actions ought to be emulated in the Muslim world.

It would be wonderful if the first iftar were to be hosted by the King and all senior political and community leaders be invited. It would be a great tradition if similar events were to be replicated at the various state capitals! What a wonderful way to bring the community together!

There are many other ways to demonstrate our reverence for Ramadan and live its essence without having to resort to chauvinistic displays in a crude attempt to portray ourselves as “champions” or “defenders” of the faith.

It is said the first ten days of Ramadan are for mercy. What better way to show this then when making the announcement for fasting the next day, the King would also release the names of prisoners granted amnesty in the spirit of Ramadan. That would be a very tangible demonstration of the power of mercy of a Muslim state. I stand corrected, but I have yet to see this as a tradition with any Muslim country.

These are the traditions of Ramadan that we need to cultivate and demonstrate.

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #29

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Chapter 4: Modern Model States

The Relevant Lessons For Malaysia

At first glance, Malaysians cannot readily identify with any of these three countries. Although they differ in a number of significant ways, nonetheless each has important lessons to offer Malaysia.

The most obvious difference is that none of three countries have multiracial societies and the accompanying interracial problems. South Korea is ethnically and culturally homogeneous. There may be some tension between the Buddhist majority and the Christian minority, but that does not lead to serious social or religious conflict. Polarizations and schisms in Korean society are more along regional and class lines.

Argentina is also deeply divided along class lines; between landowners and workers, and urban and rural dwellers. Ethnic differences are not significant as they are all essentially Europeans. Granted there are significant differences between the Germans and the Italians Argentineans (language, culture, religion), but those are of not of the same scale as the differences between Malays and Chinese.

Ireland may be closer to Malaysia in its communal dynamics, what with the profound differences between Protestant and Catholic residents. Even then it would be hard to tell just by looking a Protestant Irish from a Catholic one (of course the crucifix hanging around the neck would be a definite giveaway!). In Malaysia, by and large you could readily tell a Chinese from a Malay, and a Malay from an Indian, those mamaks notwithstanding.

Since the Irish independence however, the Protestants had been effectively pushed out to emigrate. Today they are an insignificant minority. To the north however, the Catholic and Orangemen are very much still at each other’s throat. Although many of the leading Irish institutions (Trinity College for one) and venerable industries (Guinness, Irish Times) were of Protestant origin, they are now fully Irish (that is, Catholic) in ambience and character. A couple of generations ago the Irish had a comparable “Malaysian” problem, with the Protestant minority controlling the economy while the Catholic majority was marginalized.

Ireland in particular offers three major lessons for Malaysia: one, reducing the influence of institutionalized religion; two, population control; and three, the issue of education and language.

The Catholic Church had more influence in Ireland than in any other country, including Italy where the Vatican is. The Irish Church controlled the social services, education system, and everything else, including perhaps the thought processes of its followers. In the past, the clergy was to the Irish what the Ayatollah is to Iranians today. Educational institutions in Ireland were for a long time not so much learning as indoctrination centers. Irish social services were meant less to alleviate the social pain and sufferings, more to entrap the faithful to the church.

Substitute Catholicism for Islam and Irish for Malays, and we have the situation in Malaysia today. Just as the Irish were gripped and strangled by the Church, so too are today’s Malays by governmental Islam. This brand of Islam has intruded into every facet of Malay life; from our schools and into our minds. Malaysian Muslims risk being branded “deviationist” and suffer the worldly consequences should they by chance stray from the official line or dare express independent thought. Many Muslim scholars have been jailed without due process for braving to give new meaning to our faith. If some Muslims leaders in Malaysia have their way, apostasy would be a capital offence.

There is a proliferation of Islamic institutions in Malaysia. Even universities supposedly designed for science and technology have large Islamic Studies departments. Yet despite the quantity, alas their scholarly works remain unimpressive. No new thinking or fresh insight emanates from these hallowed halls. These Islamic establishments are less scholarly and religious bodies but more government propaganda machinery. They serve to stamp an Islamic cachet to every official pronouncement and policy. No less significant, they are also massive public works programs for the glut of otherwise unemployable Islamic Studies graduates.

Islamic leaders give endless fatwas (edicts), often on topics for which they are completely clueless. Their training is narrow and rigid. Granted no one can be knowledgeable on every topic and issue, but these Islamic officials are not shy of making pronouncements outside their scope of competence. They seem to have all the answers; they do not feel compelled to seek advice from worldly experts. When you presume to have a direct line to the Almighty Allah, you certainly do not need the advice and counsel from mere mortals. Their intellectual certitude is exceeded only by their moral arrogance.

In Malaysia, religious teachers and ulama are treated with undue reverence. Critical thinking is not encouraged or allowed when they deliver their fatwas, khutbas, or lectures. Question or query them at your peril. Theirs is the ultimate truth. To these modern Islamic ‘scholars’ and ulamas, everything is deemed settled; all the students have to do is absorb whatever is spouted from their teachers’ mouth, and retain it long enough to be regurgitated at examination time. No wonder when these students grow up and face the problems of the world, they are befuddled.

As in Ireland of yore, the system of education in Malaysia today is heavily influenced by religion, in this case Islam. This is a recent development. Before that religion had minimal or no role in the Malaysian educational system; it was essentially secular. However, with the greater emphasis on Islam, partly as a planned strategy by the UMNO-led government to steal the Islamic thunder from the opposition Islamic party, the government has been emphasizing religion in schools and other establishments.

It is not religion – specifically Islam – that is so destructive in the education of young Malays, rather the manner in which the subject is being taught. Religious teachers treat their students as subjects to be indoctrinated. Students are viewed as empty bins to be filled in with dogmas. They are taught to treat their teachers like the Pope – infallible – never to question what is being uttered no matter how ridiculous. Religion is reduced to a series of do’s and don’ts. Rote learning rather than critical thinking is valued.

The sad and destructive part is that this teaching philosophy gets transferred to other subjects. Before long we will get a generation of Malays who are nothing but robots controlled by the state.

Next: The Relevant Lessons for Malaysia (Cont’d)

Secular Aspects of Blessed Ramadan

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

Secular Aspects of Blessed Ramadan
M. Bakri Musa

A friend from Canada who moved to California many years ago decided recently to return to the cold north. When asked why, he replied that while he absolutely enjoyed the year-round sunshine and the salubrious climate of the Golden State, he found the lack of seasons disorienting.

“I could not get anything done,” he claimed, “Every day was too nice and I would postpone to the perpetual ‘next day’ doing my gardening, cleaning the garage, or even reading my favorite novel.”

My friend’s observation reverberates in me this middle of Ramadan. Yes, California lacks a definite season, but the fasting ‘season’ forces me to shift gear mentally, behaviorally, and in many other ways just as surely as the falling snow in January and the glorious sunshine in July did to me when I lived in Canada.

Nonetheless, my Canadian friend is on to something profound. One theory explaining the more advanced development of the people of the temperate zone is that the definite seasons disciplined them to plan, or at least be prepared for the inevitable adversities ahead.

The definite seasons of the temperate zones effectively regulate human activities. You plow in the spring, plant in the summer, and harvest in the fall. The long cold dark nights, being non-conducive to procreative activities, are more suited for intellectual and other cerebral pursuits. Failure to plan and lack of discipline to observe the rhythm of the season would have severe consequences, for come winter and nature would weed you out from the community’s gene pool.

The definite seasons seamlessly integrate into society the concept of planning, and once a culture has this as an integral part of its ethos, and the discipline to observe it, then the groundwork for advancement is well laid. In my view, this is what makes societies in the temperate zones more advanced. As a theory, it is more appealing than one based on race or skin color.

The monotonous climate of the tropics on the other hand, with one day more or less like any other and with no distinct season, there is no sense of urgency or need for planning. If it rains, be patient for it will clear up soon enough and then you can go out hunting or fishing again.

This lack of season encourages you to procrastinate; soon the “mañana syndrome” becomes ingrained in you and the culture. Why do today that which wait till tomorrow? A decade goes by and the crack in the wall is still not fixed!

A society that lacks discipline and one that constantly procrastinates is never destined for greatness. The same applies to individuals.

Thoughts on Ramadan

These thoughts swirl in me as I tap the keyboard in the silence of my empty office at lunch break during Ramadan, deep in the cerebral pursuit of writing this essay. Ramadan does that to me, to pursue matters cerebral and spiritual. In fact I see little difference in the two.

In the normal scheme of things I would have been in the cafeteria with my colleagues bitching over our deteriorating healthcare “non system.” Either that or we would be busy solving the world’s problems!

The switch to skipping lunch seems so welcomed. I have missed many lunches before as when my schedule was hectic, yet that did not quite affect me in the manner of missing lunch during Ramadan. For one, I had planned on it, for in the evening before I had made a niat (a pledge) without which my fasting would not “be accepted.” For another, uninterrupted in the quiet of my office during lunch break, I get so much done.

Ramadan, properly observed as per our Qur’an and traditions of our Prophet, sa.w., is a season that disciplines us. It disciplines us towards moderation and restraint, as well as to respect time, as with the breaking of fast. It also incorporates the concept of planning. For just as we have to plan for winter, so too should we for Ramadan.

Sha’ban, the month preceding Ramadan, is for such preparation. The Prophet s.a.w. used to fast on many days during Sha’ban. That could be simplistically viewed as “prep.” This is important. As a surgeon in Malaysia I used to see many flare ups of ulcers and gum diseases attributed to this lack of preparation for fasting.

I am guided by the Qur’an, Verse 2:185 (Surah Al Baqara), approximately translated: “It was in the month of Ramadan that the Qur’an was revealed as guidance for mankind [in] distinguishing between right and wrong.” (Abdel Haleem, 2004). That is enough for me to hold Ramadan in reverence.

For those who need more assurance, there is the hadith (saying of Prophet Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah) to the effect that when Ramadan starts, “the gates of the heaven are opened and the gates of hell are closed, and the devils are chained.” That comes in handy only if we have a choice of when we exit this world, but we don’t. Another has it that on the “Night of Power” (one of the odd nights in the last ten days of Ramadan), meritorious deeds would be amplified to that “of a thousand months!” I presume that hadith is for those quantitatively inclined.

The more pragmatic would do well to be reminded of the season concept alluded to by my Canadian friend. Islam began in the Middle East, a region without definite seasons. Likewise its followers; the bulk dwell in the season-less tropics and subtropical regions.

For Muslims, Ramadan could be looked upon as a season for reflection and contemplation, a time to ponder our place in the grand scheme of things. It is a personal as well as societal or cultural “time-out.” In our fast-paced multi-tasking world, do we ever need one!

The change in the daily routine, the greater emphasizes on things religious, and the drastically reduced caloric intake all reinforce this “time-out” dimension. As for the seasonal aspect, in traditional Muslim societies Ramadan is a convenient time marker, as in, “The first Ramadan after the war,” in much the same manner as, “the first winter following the war.”

Of course as a physician I would be remiss if I do not mention the many medical benefits of fasting, the central feature of Ramadan. Calorie Restriction (CR) (approximate meaning – reduction in food intake) is the only experimental variable known to extend the lifespan of a number of species including primates. CR also reduces age-related disorders like cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disorders in mammals, enough that CR regimes are now a booming business in the anti-ageing sector of the health industry.

If appealing to vanity is not your cup of tea, consider the polar opposite of CR. Obesity, apart from its negative impact on your vanity, is a major public health problem, and not just in developed societies. I see its devastating consequences daily in my medical practice.

Viewed medically, Ramadan is a month-long season of CR. A caveat! CR is beneficial only if it is chronic and not acute; meaning over weeks and not days. Acute CR followed by binge eating is destructive health-wise and in many other ways.

Unfortunately Ramadan in many Muslim societies today has degenerated into a season of acute CR during daylight hours and binge eating after dusk. Instead of losing a few pounds, most put on weight, and just a few pounds! This can only be described as bida’a (adulteration of the faith), to use the language of the Qur’an, quite apart from the deleterious health effects.

As we near the halfway point of this holy month, let us remember the central message Allah imparted to the His Last Prophet during that special Ramadan, and the recurring theme of our Holy Qur’an, Amr bi alma ‘ruf wa nahi ‘an alnunkar (Command good, and forbid evil!) More practically, let this blessed Ramadan be a season that disciplines us, and a much-needed “time-out.”

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #28

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Chapter 4:      Modern Model States

Don’t Cry For Argentina (Cont’d)

Argentineans today must be wondering where they had gone wrong.  How could they mess up such a wonderful country?  With such promising attributes and rich resources, it would take a real effort to screw things up.  The Argentineans did not accidentally stumble their way down; they must have deliberately taken that path of self-destruction.

I deliberately choose this Latin American country as a negative example, of how not to proceed; or how to mess things up royally.  To see how far Argentina had fallen, a cursory review o f its history would suffice.

In the early 20th century Argentina enjoyed a standard of living much higher than that of Western Europe.  Capital and labor poured in to tap the country’s wealth.  United States too had a massive influx of European immigrants at that time.  Unlike America however, Argentina did not have a dominant culture into which the immigrants wished to assimilate.  Thus the Italians in Argentina pretty well maintained their own culture and value system, as did the Spaniards and other Europeans.

In contrast, America had the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture and ethos; all new immigrants were eager to join this cultural mainstream.  They readily adopted Anglican ways, including changing their names to make them sound more English.  They forced themselves and their children to learn English and to forget the old ways.

Today, America is a much more integrated society.  Not so with Argentina.  Argentina was spared the devastations of the two world wars.  Thanks to its abundant food supply, it was also spared much of the horrors of the Great Depression.  One would expect that with such a head start, it would have overtaken the world by now.  Alas such is not the case.

Argentina may have been spared the devastation of wars but her series of military dictatorships created just as much destruction, if not more.  At least in a war there would be an end point when one side is exhausted or defeated, and the process of healing and rebuilding could begin.

The military’s intervention in the affairs of state began in 1930 with the overthrow of the civilian government.  The military up to that time had prided itself on its professionalism and autonomy, or more accurately, lack of political ambitions.  Promotions and recruitment were done entirely by the officers themselves, with no favoritism or manipulation from politicians.  Merit became the operative criterion and as a result, the military attracted the best and brightest.

These professional and highly disciplined officers looked disdainfully at the incompetence of the politicians and decided to act.  One can certainly sympathize with that sentiment!  The politicians were indeed helpless to solve the deepening polarization, especially between workers and members of the oligarchy.

Although that early military rule lasted only for two years and the subsequent election held on time, that was only a procedural change.  The generals merely changed into civilian suits, stuffed the ballot boxes, and were duly elected.  This trick of course has been copied umpteen times by military officers all over the Third World.  Argentina however, must surely hold the record.  Between 1930 and 1983, the country had been through 26 successful military coups, and hundreds of unsuccessful ones!

The generals may have thought they had the solutions but in reality they merely succeeded in substituting themselves for the landowners and capitalists as the enemy of the working class.  But one of these officers, one Colonel Juan Peron, did develop a populist streak.  Peron used his position as Secretary of Labor, a minor position in the political hierarchy, to cultivate a following among the workers.  Having suitably anointed himself as a hero of the working class with the help of an actress later to become his wife, Eva, he easily won the 1946 election.

Peron, enamored with the labor movement and ways of the left, proceeded to pursue socialistic policies.  Apart from the obligatory Five Year Plans, he nationalized major sectors of the economy.  Initially he did succeed in shifting wealth to the workers.  His plans appeared to work, with workers now getting a fair shake in the economy.  The GDP expanded at a steady clip and emboldened, the state became even more involved in the economy.  Costly and inefficient industries were thus created, not so much to produce goods and services, rather to alleviate unemployment.  In the end they became nothing more than subsidized public works programs.

Agriculture, the backbone of the nation, was heavily taxed and ignored to subsidize urban industries.  Farm products were priced ridiculously low to appease urban consumers.  The end results were, despite vast fertile grasslands, a substantial decline in agricultural and meat production.  To aggravate matters, Argentineans continued to live beyond their means, encouraged and subsidized by the state.  The government too, was equally profligate.

Buoyed by his populist success, Peron even took on the Catholic Church.  In the end his populist appeasement came back to haunt him.  You cannot please all the people all the time; eventually someone has to pay the bill.  When that time came, Peron could not find ready volunteers.  Peron’s rule ended, not surprisingly, with a military coup in 1955.  Alas, the subsequent military leaders proved equally inept.

In 1982 the military took the country to a disastrous war with Britain over the Falklands.  Humiliated, the generals ceded power, and 1983 saw the election of Raul Alfonsin.  But uncontrolled inflation and declining production continued.  Argentineans and their governments still lived beyond their means and borrowed heavily.  There was no social consensus over budget cuts and other austerity measures.  Hyperinflation set in with rates in the range of 400% per month.  By the time he was succeeded in 1989 by the colorful and flamboyant Carlos Menem, Argentina’s foreign debt was a staggering US $69 billion. (By 2002, it doubled to over US$140B.)

Menem immediately normalized relations with Britain and put the war behind.  He committed himself and the nation to free enterprise by opening its markets and privatizing state industries.  Tariffs, which hitherto covered over 90% of imports, were drastically dismantled.

The seminal restructuring event was the sale of its massive state telephone company, and Menem used the hard currency thus earned to pare down the debt.  Most significantly, Menem made a radical move by fixing the pesos to the dollar, the convertibility plan.  In so doing he not only tamed Argentina’s hyperinflation but also facilitated trade with America, the world’s largest and most lucrative market.  Argentina, which until then had experienced capital flight, began to get foreign investments again, including money its citizens had stashed abroad.

To give the proper credit, many of the economic initiatives of Menem were in reality the brainchild of his Economic Minister, the Harvard PhD Domingo Cavillo.  He rightly targeted that the root of the Argentineans’ hyperinflation was not monetary (too much money chasing too few goods), rather the fiscal indiscipline of its political leaders.  Cavillo knew that hyperinflation, in contrast to the garden-variety inflation, was more than a mere economic phenomenon; it represented the people’s utter and total lack of confidence in the government.  Curing it meant going beyond taking simple economic measures.

Thus he dramatically curtailed the grandiose illusions and pretensions of the country’s leaders instead of just clamping on the money supply (the traditional remedy).  Unbelievably, it worked!  For Cavillo to rein in those wily Latin politicians must take some doing!

Menem’s first term was indeed a remarkable turnaround for Argentina.  Constrained by law to succeed himself, he, like South Korea’s Park, pushed through constitutional amendments to enable him to run for a second term, which he won handily.  In his second term he reverted to the stereotype Latin leader.  It was marred by administrative sclerosis, increasing corruption, and high-profile financial scandals.  Precluded by law from running for the third time, he was succeeded in 1999 by a man who was his exact opposite, Fernando de la Rua.

Among Rua’s first moves was to sell the luxurious presidential jet, a Boeing 757, which had cost a fortune to maintain and operate.  That luxurious jet epitomized the profligate ways of the government and its leaders.  Cavillo was successful, but not completely!

Under the standard “one rule fits all” IMF tutelage, Rua increased taxes and cut social spending, which prompted a series of citizens’ protests and labor unrests.  At the time of my writing, Argentina is again threatening to default on its massive foreign debt, a move that would send ugly repercussions worldwide.  It is to be noted that a significant portion of that debt was not for investments but routine operating expenses, including the servicing of earlier loans.

Under Menem’s first term Argentina was the poster child of free market advocates.  His reforms won plaudits, in particular from Washington, DC.  But by the end of his second term, with the strengthening of the US dollar, Argentina’s competitiveness vis a vis its neighbors declined considerably, hurting its exports.  Convertibility, which was an economic lifesaver a decade earlier, is now a significant drag, with Brazil and other neighboring countries gaining significant competitive advantage with their devalued currencies.  While only a few years earlier Argentina was talking bravely about dollarizing its economy, by 2001 Argentina was hedging its bets.  But by January 2002 the dollar link was severed and the peso devalued.  That was more than just a monetary decision; it shattered what little credibility the government had with its people and the financial markets.

With the economic crisis came widespread social discontent and political upheaval.  In early 2002, within the space of a few weeks Argentina changed presidents no less than five times.  The public’s faith in the government waned with widespread graft and breach of faith.  Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index for example ranked the country at 52nd (highly corrupt).  At the dawn of the 21st Century, Argentina is a far different country than it was a century earlier.

Next:   The Relevant Lessons For Malaysia

For The Love of Allah, And Only For That – Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

For The Love of Allah, And Only for That!
M. Bakri Musa

During this Ramadan, like all previous ones, mosques will be full of worshipers and the treasuries of Muslim charities will be flooded with generous donations. This is true of my little Muslim community here in the southern tip of Silicon Valley, California, as well as in the heart of Islam, Mecca.

In my community, praise be to Allah, we have no difficulty finding sponsors for our weekly community iftar (breaking of the fast). We have also conveniently made our annual fundraising event, “Feeding of the Soul,” during Ramadan. As my folks back in the old kampong would say, we are mengambil kesempatan durian runtuh (taking advantage of the durian season).

However, as my young Imam Ilyas observed in his Friday sermon, this heightened spirituality and generosity during Ramadan, while certainly praiseworthy, would be more so if we could extend them throughout the year.

Ramadan holds a special reverence for Muslims. It is the month in which the Quran was first revealed to our Prophet Muhammad, May the Blessings of Allah be upon Him. That should be reason enough to hold the month in high esteem.

We are also told that prayers and other spiritual deeds offered during Ramadan would carry “forty times more reward” than at any other time. And on the special “Night of Power (Lailatul Qadar), said to be one of the odd nights of the last ten days of Ramadan, those deeds are “better than that of a thousand months!”

Muslims presumably need this further assurance for the month’s special place!

I have difficulty when religious deeds, or indeed any good deeds for that matter, are reduced to the simplistic accumulation of “brownie points.” In this case, the collecting of merit points, Boy Scout style, to be later redeemed presumably at the Gates of Heaven.

I am reminded of this eloquent prayer of the eighth century Muslim hazrat (saint), Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya:

O God! If I worship Thee for fear of Hell, then burn me in Hell
And if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, then exclude me from there.
But if I worship Thee for Thine own sake,
Then grudge me not Your Everlasting Beauty!

Her prayer brought back fond memories of my late grandfather, Haji Salam bin Tachik. Yes, his name – Salam – was a reflection of him, a man at peace with himself. Whenever he was offered an odd job by a neighbor, he would promise to give his best, and then sealed it with a handshake uttering, “Kerana Allah” (because of Allah).

And he did his best and gave all he had. I would often criticize him for expending so much effort that was way out of proportion to what he would be paid. He was not at all perturbed by my carping. Instead he would reply, “Grandson, I did it not to please the man in the hope that he would give more work or better pay in the future, but because I had made a promise to Allah.”

Kerana Allah, he would repeatedly remind me. He did not say that he was worried of “sinning” and fearing God’s wrath if he were to cheat his employer by doing a less-than-satisfactory job. His love of Allah was enough for him to give his best and to avoid deeds that would earn His wrath. That was what kept him on the “straight path.”

I remind myself of my grandfather’s simple lesson and Rabi’a’s moving prayer this Ramadan whenever I am called to tend upon yet another indigent patient. What with the present trying economic times, there are plenty of such patients. And as per my Imam’s advice, I have tried to live through my grandfather’s creed throughout the year.

There are plenty of generous deeds being done in Malaysia and elsewhere during Ramadan. Many are high profile events like elaborate iftars in fancy restaurants and generous donations to the disadvantaged. Let us hope that those are done for the sake of Allah, and only for His sake, in the spirit of Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya, and be continued outside of Ramadan, as per my Imam’s sermon.

Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya

Rabi’a was the fourth (hence her name) daughter of a poor family. They were robbed while traveling in a caravan and she ended up being sold as a slave to a cruel master.

She spent her evenings praying after her chores were done. One night her master was awakened by the sound of her prayer lamenting the fact that she was unable to carry out His command as she was enslaved. Her prayer so affected her owner that he felt ashamed and sacrilegious in keeping a slave, and offered instead to be her slave and her be the mistress of the manor.

She instead opted for her freedom, which she spent meditating and learning. And learn she did, and in her own unique way. She was not all impressed with the superficialities of the faith or the mindless rituals of its followers. Despite being a woman and single, her fame spread.

It was said that when she undertook the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Ka’aba was so enthralled with her pending arrival that it moved halfway to meet her! Now to have the Ka’aba come to you and not the other way around is highly symbolic in the Islamic scheme of things. It is of course a less lofty version of the hadith theme that if Muhammad (pbuh) would not come to the mountain, then it would come to him!

Rabi’a however was not in the least impressed or enthralled by the gesture, and was reported to have retorted, “It is the Lord of the house whom I need; what have I to do with the house? I need to meet with Him Who said, ‘Who approaches Me by a span’s length, I will approach him by the length of a cubit.’ The Ka’aba which I see has no power over me; what joy does the beauty of the Ka’aba bring to me?”

She rightly separated and was not confused by the object of veneration from the subject. Some would say that hers was the height of arrogance; to me, putting things in perspective! It is not the Ka’aba that Muslims should be praying to, rather Allah.

In misogynist medieval Arabic culture, Rabi’a stood out as a shining light and an exemplary teacher. Teachers would do well to heed her maxim: “You call yourself a teacher; therefore learn!” She also stood out in many other ways. In a faith and culture that frankly abhor celibacy and non-marriage, Rabia’ remained single and celibate. She was, in the tradition of nuns, already ‘married’ to God. Meaning, fully and exclusively devoted to Allah!

Legend has it that she was found one day running on the streets of Basra carrying a torch in one hand and a pail of water in the other. When asked what she was doing, she replied, “I want to put out the fires of Hell and burn down the rewards of Paradise. They block the way to God. I do not want to worship from fear of punishment or for the promise of reward, but simply for the love of God.” Hence her famous prayer!

Unfortunately today religion, in particular Islam of the official Malaysian variety, is simplistically reduced to a series of dos and don’ts, as well as the accompanying mindset of garnering reward and avoiding punishment. The intrinsic value and satisfaction of doing good, and the avoidance of evil for its own (meaning, Allah’s) sake, are lost.

Rabi’a’s concept of “Divine love” (For the love of God), also found in other faiths, was her guiding principle. God should be loved for His own sake, not out of fear of Hell or the promise of Heaven, as beautifully encapsulated in her prayer. Indeed such primordial emotions as fear and sublime ones like hope can be like a veil, hindrance to the full vision of Allah.

This Ramadan as we fast, pray, give zakat, and do all the meritorious deeds Allah has commanded us to do, let us do so not in the promise of the reward of Heaven, or the fear that we would end up in Hell should we fail to do them, but for the love of Allah, and only for that. Nor should we do good merely for public recognition and rewards, rather for its own sake – kerana Allah.

For me, this Ramadan is also a time to remember and relive the lesson my grandfather taught me so well some 50 years ago. May the soul of Haji Salam bin Tachik rest in peace!

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #27

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Chapter 4: Modern Model States

Don’t Cry For Argentina

Argentina, like the rest of Latin America, conjures a certain indelible image. The phrase Banana Republic is both evocative and descriptive: a country dependent on a single commodity. It is banana for Honduras, sugar for Cuba, tin for Bolivia, and meat for Argentina. It also refers to military dictators in their crisp uniforms seizing power every now and then. Indeed such khaki attires are now chic, a trademark of the Banana Republic brand. Alas, these caricatures are all close to the truth.

There have been many ready explanations for Latin America’s social and political instabilities. These range from cultural, racial, religious, and even geographical. The famous Latin temper seems a reasonable enough explanation. Then there is the entrenched role of the Catholic Church. The cultural explanation, once favored, is now being resurrected. After all it was the “laid back” Southern Europeans rather than the presumably more “cultured” Anglo Saxons who colonized Latin America.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s there was the prevailing view, promulgated primarily by American social scientists, that if only Latin America could be modernized, the ensuing economic growth would generate social changes that would in turn make the region more politically stable. This modernization would, so the theory went, create a large and stabilizing middle class, as in America. Unfortunately elegant theory alone does not guarantee success. There was indeed economic growth but instead of creating a large middle class, it aggravated the inequities. The gap separating urban dwellers from rural peasants widened, so too between owners and workers. The small middle class, instead of being a stabilizing factor, merely joined in with the aristocrats. Stability still eluded the nation.

In many regards Argentina experienced what Malaysia went through in the decade following independence. Malaysia’s socioeconomic gaps were aggravated by their superimposition along racial lines. No such gross ethnic lines were present in Argentina but the end results were the same: increasing polarization of society. Traditional elected governments were unable to respond to such challenges; that in turn bred military regimes to handle the inevitable crisis.

Malaysia went through its harrowing May 13 1969 “incident” and with it the suspension of parliamentary democracy. Argentina is experiencing its own recurring May 13 nightmares, albeit without the added viciousness of racial and ethnic factors.

Latin American scholars had their own pat explanation for the adverse consequences of that modernization venture. Specifically they blamed their country’s dependency on developed countries. This dependencia theory goes something like this. Argentina would get investments from Europe to develop its beef industry. As long as the Europeans were paying a good price on the product, the Argentineans would live high off the hog, well, actually cows. As the pampas owners and meat processors grew rich, they began importing luxury goods and remitting their profits back to the parent company in Europe. Little of that wealth circulated locally, except for the lowly wages paid to the workers.

With a large pool of cheap labor there was little incentive to pay high wages; consequently little of that wealth trickled down, to use a pop economic term. When Europe suffered a recession and cut its beef imports, Argentina reeled. The workers, not having shared the riches in good times, were unwilling to bear the pain.

Proponents of the dependencia theory viewed the world as made of an “industrial center” (Western Europe and America), and the commodity-producing “periphery” (Argentina). To them, trade is a “win-lose” proposition, with the periphery at the mercy of and being exploited by the industrial center. Thus dependencia proponents advocated massive state intervention to break this dependency on the industrial center. Hence high import barriers, closed economy, and general denigration and distrust of markets. All these arguments were artfully cloaked in nationalistic terms and camouflaged as “national security.” To the dependencia advocates, foreign trade was just another form of colonialism by the West.

The massive state presence in the economy merely encouraged corruption and the formation of various pressure groups out to get their share of the bounty from the public trough. The preoccupation of both the government and the governed were less with creating wealth, more on redistributing it to the various favored groups. This only encouraged deepening polarization and increasingly divisive fights for the ever-diminishing wealth. Traditional democratic governments could not easily deal with such diversely competing interests; they were preoccupied with satisfying their own constituencies while ignoring the broader national goals. Thus the ensuing cries of the populace for someone, anyone, to “take charge.”

Enter the military. In reality the generals who replaced the elected leaders were equally inept in economic matters and just as corrupt. They essentially treated the nation like an army, meddling in every aspect of the economy. Thus not only did the generals leave their barracks to command the government ministries, they also meddled in the marketplace. They nationalized key industries, created new ones to compete with the private sector, and abandoned any semblance of fiscal discipline. Argentina followed this pattern of massive state intervention until late 1980’s, when the non-military President Carlos Menem was elected and began instituting fundamental economic reforms toward free market.

Unlike the government involvement in the marketplace we saw in South Korea that produced such phenomenal success, the experience of Latin America was akin to the Soviet model, with creaking state industries, inept public and private management, and highly protected and inefficient domestic markets.

Why government intervention in East Asia produced spectacular successes while in Latin America abysmal failures remains the biggest unanswered question in developmental economics. The obvious difference is that the South Korean Generals used their power to push their nation towards free and global markets, while the Argentineans went the opposite way, to withdraw. Briefly put, the Koreans were outward looking; the Argentineans, inward.

Nature has been kind to Argentina. It has plentiful fertile land, vast resources, and moderate climate. With an area exceeding a million square miles and a population of just 34 million, the country is indeed blessed. It is appropriately called Argentina, silver in Spanish. Although it lacks that rich mineral, the country’s other wealth more than compensated for that deficit.

Argentina should have been a charter member of the G8, the organization of leading economic powers. Instead it stumbles from one economic mess to another. The IMF might as well own the airline that plies between Buenos Aires and Washington, DC, for the number of times its officials have to make that trip.

Argentina reminds me of some of my clever classmates. They knew that they were smart; good grades came easily to them without much effort. Besides, the teachers were constantly reminding them of that fact. But when final examinations came, they stumbled for lack of diligence. Some were given a second chance, and suitably chastened, buckled up and succeeded. Others were not so lucky, or if they were given another chance, merely treated that opportunity as a reaffirmation of their innate superior ability and put no more effort than before, and ended up with the same grief. I am sure that back in their kampong, these former classmates of mine are regaling their grandchildren about how back in the old school days they had managed well and bested others without studying. And if they had learned their lesson, they would add a cautionary advice: that is, natural endowment alone, no matter how superior or generous, is not enough.

Next: Don’t Cry For Argentina (Cont’d)

The Distracting Bilateral Issue of Maids

Sunday, August 8th, 2010

The Distracting Bilateral Issue of Maids
M. Bakri Musa

It is telling of the state of development for both Indonesia and Malaysia that when their two leaders met recently, the key topic was Indonesian maids. Malaysia wishes to import more while Indonesia wants better working conditions for its workers in Malaysia.

I would have expected the two to discuss such consequential issues as jointly developing the region as a tourism destination to rival the Caribbean, harnessing the power of satellite and wireless communication to leapfrog the development of both countries, or perhaps conducting joint maritime research for both ecological and economic purposes. Alas, none of that!

It is reflective of the abysmal state of human development in Indonesia that maids are its major “export.” Likewise, it reflects the perverted status symbol of Malaysians that they consider having a maid as a necessity for a “luxurious” lifestyle.

It is beyond me why Malaysians think that way. Australians have a per capita income considerably higher, yet I do not see them having a “maid crisis;” likewise the Japanese. Even in America where it is now the norm for both parents to be working, very few homes have live-in maids; most do with only daytime helpers. Granted, there are many childcare centers to take up the slack.

In America, those maids (nannies) get social security benefits (America’s Employee Provident Fund – EPF) as well as workmen’s compensation insurance (for work-related injuries). They are also governed by prevailing labor laws. As can be seen, slavery is long gone in America.

While conditions for maids in Malaysia are far superior to the old American slaves, nonetheless the family-servant dynamics in Malaysia is closer to the owner-slave mentality of the Old South than to a modern employer-employee relationship.

I am surprised at the high level of engagement in this maid issue. If only a similar commitment were made in luring foreign academics and skilled workers, imagine the good it would do to Malaysia!

If Malaysia were to continue importing maids, then I would suggest imposing strict standards and paying them attractive salaries. We can begin by calling them “nannies” instead of the degrading “servants.”

The minimum monthly salary should be RM800.00, with overtime rate twice that on a prorated per hour basis. Additionally, the employer would contribute towards the nanny’s EPF. Those funds would become vested (meaning, the nannies could claim the benefits) only if they were to serve cumulatively for at least 40 quarters (equivalent of ten years), though not necessarily continuously or even with the same family. This is the rule with America’s Social Security.

As for work hours, they must have at least an eight-hour stretch of undisturbed time in a 24-hour day period, and an additional 24-hour in a seven-day period. Of course they can choose to work during those times, but they would be paid overtime.

The employer would also have to pay 10 percent towards health insurance, and another 20 percent towards a “performance bond.” The pooled money in the bond would pay for any maid caught in a criminal activity. It would also cover the cost of the loss as well as deportation. The bond funds would also benefit the nanny should her employer for some reason is unable to pay her salary, as with the employer declaring bankruptcy.

Thus it would cost at least RM1,200 per month to employ a nanny. Such a remuneration would make not only the Indonesian authorities happy (that is always a good neighborly gesture) but also those nannies. Heck, at that rate we may even interest locals to become nannies!

For those who think that such a pay rate is unrealistic, consider that the average expatriate family in Malaysia is already paying considerably more. Of course the services provided to those families are considerably superior than what Ahmad and Ah Chong are getting.

To justify the higher pay, these maids must provide superior services. They must be properly trained to do that. They must take at least a three-month course learning basic hygiene and the rudiments of safe and healthy childcare. This would include basic nutrition, child safety, and child proofing the house, including training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and Heimlich maneuver.

All these would cost money and beyond the reach of the potential typical maid from an Indonesian village. However, the government, using funds from the performance bond, could finance these courses. They would be free if the attendee were to work in Malaysia for at least three years, enough time to recoup the costs of training. Such a scheme would benefit not only potential employers but also these young women. When they return to their villages they could then take better care of their own children or grandchildren.

Of course the government could ease the need for these foreign maids (and thus save on the associated social and other costs) by encouraging the setting up of childcare centers through various incentives.

More Fruitful Avenues for Cooperation

Despite the space devoted, it is not my purpose to write on how to get better maids. Instead my focus is on exploring areas of potentially fruitful cooperation between Malaysia and Indonesia. In my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I proposed greater economic cooperation leading to integration a la the European Union between Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia (a political IBM!).

While all three are still essentially developing and thus would be competing in the same arenas, nonetheless there are sufficient differentiating factors between them that would make cooperating more beneficial than competing. The potential areas for cooperation include energy (oil and gas), plantations, tourism, wireless technology, and natural products development.

All three are oil and gas producers. Individually they are no match to the slick “seven sisters” oil companies, but collectively IBM could be a powerful countervailing force. While Pertamina and Brunei National Petroleum are still babes in the wood, Petronas has acquired significant international expertise.

With plantations, Indonesia has plenty of land in Sumatra and Kalimantan as well as labor, while Malaysia has the sophisticated experience. Brunei of course has the financial capital; at least what is left after its profligate sultan has his bite.

As for tourism, the area could rival the Caribbean as a tropical paradise for rich cold-climate dwellers. It is just as arduous to fly from Frankfurt to Cancun or St. Bart as it is to Bali or Langkawi. As in the Caribbean, I envisage four or five major cruise companies serving the area.

The Malay Archipelago with its endless islands is an ideal place to test the limits of and potential for satellite and wireless technology. Imagine if we were open up the whole area to global competition and let the likes of Nokia, ATT, Nippon Tel and Siemens compete. Once we have reliable real-time communication from Sulawesi to Seremban, and from Lubbock to Langkawi, then watch as trade and other economic activities flourish.

Likewise, imagine if we were to open up the region’s airspace to all comers, domestic and foreign. Who cares if the companies are foreign; all we are interested is affordable, reliable and efficient service. Those who can will stay and survive; those cannot, will leave.

As for natural products, both Indonesia and Malaysia still have vast tracts of ancient jungles that have yet to be explored. What is lacking is the expertise to exploit this invaluable resource and the political enlightenment to treat it wisely.

These are only some of the potential areas for cooperation. The issue of maids pales in comparison.

Indonesia’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono holds a PhD in economics, while Najib Razak is generously described as a “British-trained economist.” This makes it all the more incomprehensible why they would be involved in dealing with such trivia as the maid issue.

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #26

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

Chapter 4: Modern Model States

The Celtic Tiger (Cont’d)

Liberalization went beyond the economic sphere. It was Lemass’s political genius to use old-style nationalism, an inherent part of the Irish character, to forge progressive changes. A considerable part of that change involved a marked curtailment in the role of the Church both in the affairs of the state and in the lives of individuals. Thus birth control and sale of oral contraceptives were legalized in1979, despite severe opposition from the Church.

With the widespread use of birth control and the increasing participation of women in the workforce, Ireland’s former dizzyingly high birthrate declined substantially. The large unruly brood of yore is now replaced by one considerably smaller, but much better clothed, housed, and educated.

Closely related to the issue of contraception is the question of women’s rights. The old Irish constitution required women to give up their civil service posts upon getting married, consistent with the prevailing societal view (and also that of the Church) that a woman’s place is in the home. But by the end of the 20th century, Ireland had elected its first woman president, Mary Robinson.

What a remarkable change! Robinson was born and raised a strict Catholic and when she married a Protestant, her parents refused to attend her wedding. Lest one thinks that this was in the Dark Ages and that her parents were some narrow-minded peasants, Robinson’s marriage was in the 1960’s, and both her parents were doctors. If this was a reflection of their prejudices, I wonder if those two doctors treated their non-Catholic patients differently?

Divorce is another strict “No!” On this issue the Church is again far behind its followers. When divorce is strictly forbidden, many marriages remain in name only. Interestingly, divorce had been legal in Ireland during British rule; it was made illegal only in 1925, with the resurgence of Irish nationalism. But by 1986 a referendum on the issue saw the conservatives barely etching a victory. These changes and openness did not mean that the Irish were becoming less religious; indeed attendance at church masses remained high.

By far the most dramatic change, and one that had the greatest impact on Ireland’s economic fate, was its education policy. Ireland today enjoys one of the highest literacy rates, its workforce among the most highly educated and productive. Secondary education was made free in the 1960s, and over 80 percent of Irish students completed high school. Equally important, the role of the Church was significantly reduced, with education now essentially secular.

Like the Koreans, the one thing the Irish have going for them is their eagerness for learning. To the peasants and farmers of the old days, education was the only way out for their children. Even today a good education is still the ticket to a job in America and Britain.

In the past the Church, both Catholic and Protestant, was deeply involved in education. The Protestant institutions were, as expected, modeled along British lines and more secular. The Catholic Church on the other hand treated its schools and other institutions as a way of controlling the flock. Their schools were less educational institutions, more indoctrination centers, heavy with catechism and rituals. Many of the teachers were nuns and priests. With the education reform of the 1960s, the curriculum was radically updated and the school-leaving age was also raised to 15.

The secularization of education in the 1970s also saw the development of vocational and community schools focusing on non-academic and technical subjects. The scaling down of the role of the Church in education continues to this day.

Despite or perhaps because of the heavy Catholic Church influence on education, Protestant schools and colleges attracted many Catholic students. Their parents obviously valued the quality of the education. Trinity College of Dublin, modeled after Oxbridge, is perhaps the most prestigious. Its perceived (and real) Protestant ambience is such that until 1970 Catholic bishops forbade students in their dioceses from attending the college, a transgression deemed a mortal sin.

Despite that, in the 1920s a fifth of Trinity students were Catholic. They are now no doubt doing time in purgatory! The prohibition was lifted only in 1970 and by the 1990’s the majority of Trinity’s students and many of the professors are Catholic.

A brash new entry into the scene is the secular University of Limerick, modeled after an American institution, complete with electives and a year spent off campus. Like many competitive American universities, Limerick encourages interdisciplinary research and studies abroad. With a curriculum heavy on technology and biotech, the university attracts many potential students and employers who value its graduates.

The education system continues with the use of English. Had it succumbed to nationalistic impulses and reverted to Gaelic on achieving independence, Ireland would have been severely handicapped. Today young Irish with their English proficiency enjoy a definite advantage in the global marketplace. With Ireland now prosperous and successful, there is a resurgence of interest and pride in the Irish for their ancient language. Gaelic is now mandatory in schools.

Too many independent countries are obsessed with developing their own language at the expense of handicapping their own citizens. A language is more likely to thrive if the nation or race behind that language is successful and thriving. Had the Irish remained poverty stricken, I am certain that they would not be very proud of their language and culture. The decline of Gaelic coincided with the economic eclipse of the Irish. Until Ireland’s recent economic revival, less than 1 percent of the Irish used Gaelic. With Ireland poised to join the ranks of developed nations, even Mary Robinson sprinkled her speeches with touches of Gaelic. The language is now chic. For Malays, a point to ponder!

The tight grip the Church had on the Irish extended to the arts. With the active backing of the Catholic establishment, the government in 1926 set up a Committee of Enquiry on Evil Literature, leading to the formation of a Censorship Board. You can bet that none of the committee members had contributed an iota of creativity. The Board still exists today but it has a much lower profile. More importantly, the state has duly recognized the value of artists and writers by setting up an academy (Aosdana—The Wise People) where they receive modest state stipends to pursue their crafts. And earnings from creative works are free from income tax for anyone living in Ireland, native or foreigner.

None of these remarkable changes occurred in isolation. They all go in tandem, one reinforcing the other. The secularization of the education system would not have occurred without there being a corresponding decline in the influence of the Church. This also enabled the introduction of significant social and political reforms such as legalizing birth control and the subsequent decline in fertility rates. In turn these would not have happened had Irish leaders not looked outward and freed themselves from the trap of their colonial experience and excessive nationalism, together with the tight leash the Catholic Church had on them.

It is significant that the Irish fought a vicious civil war over the issue of partition soon after their independence. Even up until recently, reunification with the north obsessed many Irish. Today such previously divisive nationalist issues rapidly fade into the background as the Irish concentrate on developing what they have instead of thinking of expanding their domain.

Any change of the social order can be very disruptive and destabilizing. As we have seen in South Korea, it has its own price tag. The term “moral vacuum” has been used to describe contemporary Ireland because of the gap created by the decline of the Church’s authority and there being no comparable element taking its place. The old certitude is gone and with it, for some at least, the sense of security and anchoring stability. It is indeed a challenge to come up with an alternative value system. However such challenges are more likely to be solved when the nation is thriving than when it is economically stagnant or declining.

Next: Don’t Cry For Argentina

Tiada Maruah (Lack of Integrity) At The Very Top

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

Tiada Maruah (Lack of Integrity) At The Very Top
M. Bakri Musa

Last week I wrote, “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.”

I penned that piece too soon. For a few days later we have yet a third example from another top civil servant, this time Attorney General (AG) Gani Patail. Responding to the allegation of improper behavior by one of his prosecutors in the Sodomy II trial, Gani Patail simply reassigned her.

Living ten thousand miles away I have little to do with the Malaysian civil service. My daily life is thus not affected by these tiada maruah (lack of integrity) folks at the top. The organization however, is essentially Malay; likewise the political establishment. These top civil servants and political leaders are thus seen as representing the best of not just their organizations but also of Malays. Consequently, their shortcomings are viewed less as personal failures but more of our community. When they behave tiada maruah, collectively Malays are also seen as such. That is what makes me angry.

Essence of the Exposé

The AG justified his action “to remove any negative public perception of the prosecuting team.” He did not address the substance of the allegation; he managed only the perception and ignored the reality.

Raja Petra Kamarudin (RPK) first made the explosive allegation in Malaysia Today (mt.m2day.net). In a headline-blaring column titled, “The Bizarre Case of Sodomy 2,” RPK in his trademark style named the specific prosecutor, and rightly characterized the indiscretion as “a conflict of interest of the first degree.”

The allegation appeared at the end of a long article, and seemed more as an afterthought. You have to read his entire piece to get to the stunning revelation. Those who gave up earlier would miss it. It was as if RPK was challenging his readers to be thorough and not be content with only the headlines and few introductory paragraphs.

There was also a teasing coyness to the exposé; it was uncharacteristically brief. Beyond the mention of the name, there were no other details. It was as if RPK was laying a trap. Throw a teaser out, and then see those bastards falling all over themselves condemning him.

This time however, there was silence. There were no hysterical accusations or righteous condemnations that RPK was purveying “half-truths,” or as one novice politician would put it, “only 40 percent facts and the rest made up.”

My gut feeling is that RPK reveals way less than 40 percent of what he knows or has information on this evolving scandal. I had hoped that those UMNO jackasses would have resorted to their usual mouth-frothing denunciations of RPK. Then I could see him salivating like a lion that had successfully lured its prey to a trap where it could be pounced upon mercilessly.

Alas, no one walked into the trap. So we have to be patient with RPK or hope that someone would aggravate him enough for him to reveal the sordid details, perhaps titillating snippets of the videotape of the amorous illicit encounter!

The Larger Issue

It took less than a week for Gani Patail to respond to RPK’s revelation; unusually ‘efficient.’ This promptness, while laudatory, did not excuse his avoiding the heart of the matter – the truth to the allegation. For if the allegation were other than the “only 40 percent facts,” then the AG would have perpetrated a grave injustice on the young lawyer. Far from reassigning her, she should have been publicly exonerated, her integrity openly defended.

At the very least she should have been accorded due process. Even an accused murderer deserves that! The AG should be the last person to have to be reminded of this elementary legal tenet. Here we have the obscenity of the AG having a press conference first, with the poor prosecutor learning of her fate not from the media. Simple decency demanded that the AG should have met with the alleged wayward lawyer first, to get her side of the story and then to inform her of his decision.

If the allegation were true, then the AG has more than a serious disciplinary problem. There are the legal issues with respect to the Sodomy 2 trial. Additionally, the alleged act was also criminal per the Sharia.

Gani Patail cannot abrogate his responsibility. It is not enough for him to simply declare, “… [A]ny personal matter, if it can have any implication in whatever form on the department, will be handled very seriously.” He also has to demonstrate it.

If the allegation has substance, then the AG must remind himself that if she is not disciplined now, she would continue winding her up the civil service. She could one day be a judge or even the AG.

I am not concerned here with the career trajectory of a young lawyer. Nor am I particularly perturbed at the ineptness of some of our high level officials. I have seen enough similar examples elsewhere to be able to put that in perspective. The Peter Principle is after all universal.

I am however concerned with the pattern of tiada maruah leadership in the civil service and other essentially Malay entities. The recent scandal at Sime Darby reflects the pervasiveness of this blight. Again this being Malaysia, the racial element is never far from the public radar. One only has to read the bigoted comments on the Internet and elsewhere to be painfully reminded of this.

These tiada maruah Malays only feed this ugly stereotype. Of all people I would have expected them to be conscious of this, and thus make every effort to ensure that their behaviors would help tear down this unfair image.

I am not in the least comforted by the fact the Indian civil service is even more bloated and lumbering, or that the folks in Beijing are hideously more corrupt (note the recent scandal of tainted baby formulas) and disrespectful of basic human rights (witness their all too frequent summary executions). We are talking about Malaysia here, with our own rules, norms and expectations.

The other communities too have their own peculiar blights. The scandals with MAIKA and Port Klang Free Zone Project are obscene reminders of that. To me that is neither an excuse nor a consolation.

I feel for those honest, competent and diligent public servants who are Malays. They give all they have for the nation but their good work is being overshadowed by these yahoos at the top. How did the likes of Gani Patail reach the top? Likewise, I keep wondering how such unimaginative, frankly corrupt, and not terribly competent people get to lead us. More importantly, why did we let them? The answers elude me.

We can only change the negative image of our community by changing the reality. Vote these corrupt and incompetent bastards out! Voting them in again would only encourage them. Indeed this is exactly what has been happening. By repeatedly voting them in for the past 50 years, we are implicitly condoning if not encouraging their wayward ways.

Once we have capable political leaders, they will take care of the Napoleons in the public service, the little as well as the big ones. In the meantime we must do everything we can to shame them. This essay is an exercise in that. Come the election, we can punish them.

Those who love our community and champion its cause, including the Ketuanan Melayu folks, would do well to enlist in this urgent and critical mission of ridding our community of these tiada maruah leaders and civil servants. Unless we destroy the blight now, it will be the undoing of our society. This is where we should focus. We must not be distracted by such imagined enemies as the pendatangs (immigrants), capitalism, or globalization. The enemy is us, specifically our leaders.