Archive for the ‘Exchanges with Din Merican’ Category

Distilling the Essence of Islam

Sunday, September 23rd, 2007

Exchanges With Din Merican

Dear Bakri:

I had the pleasure of chatting with Imam Feisal Rauf at the Blog House in Bukit Damansara last Sunday (September 9, 2007) after he led our Maghrib prayers.  The occasion was the special interfaith Doa Selamat prayers seeking Allah’s Blessings for Tun Mahathir’s speedy recovery from his second bypass operation on Tuesday September 4th.  As you know, The Tun had his first on January of 1989.

Apart from being the former Prime Minister and an outstanding leader, Tun Mahathir was also my mentor and hero.  Thus the multi-faith congregational prayers Imam Feisal led had a special significance for me.

            The Imam’s greater effort is in trying to bridge the divide between the West and Islam.  I thoroughly enjoyed his recent book and understood his theme:  the commonality of our faiths with their universal message of love, charity, and goodwill.

Until I met him, I did not know that he had studied at a local school in Kuala Lumpur.  That explained his impeccable Malay and special affection for Malaysia!

            I was also delighted to learn that he is the son of the distinguished and yet very humble Egyptian scholar-teacher, the late Tan Sri Professor Dr. Muhammad Rauf of Al-Azhar University, Cairo.  I must say that Imam Feisal also inherited his father’s handsome features!

The late Professor – I knew him as Dr. Rauf – was my professor at the University of Malaya when I did Islamic Studies in my first year (1960).  He (Al-Fatihah) taught Islamic History, the Quran, and the Hadith.  He had a huge influence on my thinking about and my attitude towards our religion.  Prior to that, my exposure to our Holy Book, like you I presume, was through the lessons taught by my simple kampong ustaz.

            Hence the special bonding I felt for Imam Feisal, as reflected in my affectionate hug after the Maghrib prayer that Sunday.  I had to hold back my tears.  I felt deep within my heart that he reminded me very much of my earlier special Professor of Islam.  Yet it did not occur to me to ask him whether he knew Professor Rauf!  Imam Feisal’s manner of speaking, appearance, and views on Islam were very much of my enlightened intellectual Professor Rauf, Imam Feisal’s father.

            I am happy to have met the Imam and to know that he inherited much of his father’s legacy.  Dr. Rauf was the first teacher who said to me that there is no compulsion in Islam.  He was always composed, rational, and very analytical in his discourses on Islam, the Quran and The Prophet, pbuh.

I still have Yusof Ali’s Translation of the Quran, which I acquired on his recommendation 47 years ago, as well as Professor Hitti’s History of the Arabs.  Both are very old and tattered volumes now.

            I saw Professor Rauf some years ago when he was the Rector of the International Islamic University.  I was very touched and honored that after so many years he still remembered me as “you are that student who came knocking at my office door” to seek clarifications on certain verses of the Quran which he had quoted during his lectures.  Once he cleared my doubts, he eased my mind.  He made me appreciate our religion and its theological and philosophical underpinnings.

            Strange as it may seem to some people, our teachers and professors do have a profound influence on our lives.  I am reminded of Surah Al-Luqman (Surah 31), which was first introduced to me by the Late Professor.  Luqman the Wise, for whom the Surah is named, counseled his son, among other things, to keep up his prayers, command what is right and forbid what is wrong, and to bear anything that happens to you steadfastly.  The late Professor Dr. Rauf was an Al-Luqman to me.  What a small world for me over 40 years later to meet his son, Imam Feisal.

Imam Feisal and I met almost by chance.  What brought us together at Blog House that Sunday was our genuine concern for the health and well being of Tun Mahathir whom we both admire for his many achievements as Prime Minister and a Muslim Leader par excellence.

Salam and Selamat Berpuasa,

Din

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My reply:

Dear Din:

Unlike you, I have not as yet had the privilege of meeting Imam Feisal.  I have viewed his lectures and interviews on television, and read a few of his books, including his latest, What’s Right With Islam:  A New Vision for Muslims and the West and What’s Right with Islam: is What’s Right with America.  The most memorable phrase I take from both books is that America is “the most Sharia-compliant” state today.  Food for thought for those ardent advocates of an Islamic state!

            Muslim leaders like Imam Feisal and the Aga Khan (who was also in Malaysia recently to officiate the famed architectural prize in his name) provide a much-needed counterpoint to the likes of the deluded Osama bin Ladin and the ever-growling Ayatollah.

Imam Feisal and the Aga Khan capture best for me the central Quranic message:  Command good and forbid evil.  From that central theme flow other subsidiary ones, like treating others as you wish to be treated.  That in essence is Allah’s message to all His prophets, and thus the major themes of all faiths.  If only our leaders – religious and secular – could emphasize this commonality instead of being obsessed with our differences!

That interfaith Doa Selamat prayer for the Tun is a superb example of this endeavor of using religion to bring people together and not to divide them.  I tip my songkok to Marina Mahathir for initiating this.  It gave an opportunity for all Malaysians to express their love and prayers for the Tun, besides bringing us together.  Marina is experienced at arranging these ecumenical gatherings when she headed the AIDS Council.

Of course there will always be the bigots who fear that such mixing of religions would “adulterate” our faith.

Such small mindedness is not confined to the uninformed or uneducated.  In 1998 when Hari Raya and Chinese New Year coincided, the government wisely seized upon the rare and unique opportunity to remind Malaysians of the virtues of generosity and tolerance by capitalizing on the dual joyous occasions.  Petronas came out with an imaginative and a memorably uplifting advertising jingle.

However at the Hari Raya prayers I attended at a mosque on the campus of University Islam, I heard very little of that spirit expressed in the sermon.  Instead, the Imam venomously lashed out at those who dared elevate non-Islamic festivities to the exalted status of Hari Raya, a direct assault on the government’s noble intention.

Long soporific sermons have their sleepy effect on me rather quickly, but the ferocious intensity of the Imam’s fulminating tirade kept me awake.  Words like “heathens,” “blasphemy,” and “sacrilege” were liberally sprinkled in his sermon, irreverently incongruous in a place of worship and at a traditionally forgiving season.

I am pleased that The Star will be publishing a regular column by Imam Feisal during this Ramadan.  The works of Muslim leaders like Imam Feisal and the Aga Khan capture best for me the meaning of dakwa (teaching) and zakat (charity).  Imam Feisal with his Cordoba Initiative and the Aga Khan with his string of universities and health centers give us a more enlightened meaning of the two important concepts in Islam.

I have another observation on Imam Feisal.  Unlike his father, the Imam is a product of America’s modern liberal education, having graduated in physics from Columbia, an Ivy League university.  Like the other religious leader I admire, Asghar Ali Engineer, Imam Feisal’s background in the physical science and his quantitative skills give precision to his thought.  In physics and engineering, you cannot simply agak agak (guesswork) or the bridge you designed would collapse.

Imam Feisal illustrates my point, elaborated in my book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia, of the need to revamp our religious stream.  Our future ulamas and religious scholars must be exposed to the widest field of study before embarking on their religious career.

Sallam and Selamat Berpuasa,

Bakri

High Hopes From A “Settled” Abdullah-Exchanges With Din Merican

Friday, June 8th, 2007

High Hopes From A “Settled” Abdullah

Exchanges Between Din Merican and Bakri Musa

Dear Bakri:

Raja Petra of Malaysia Today was spot-on when he wrote many months ago that Prime Minister Abdullah had found someone special to fill the void in his heart after the death of his beloved wife Datin Seri Endon nearly two years ago. Raja Petra correctly identified the lady as Jeanne Danker; he erred only in stating that Abdullah had already married her.

It is now official, confirmed no less by the Prime Minister himself at a press conference earlier this week, and covered prominently by the media. The ceremony will be this Saturday, June 9 at Seri Perdana. It will be a simple private ceremony.

Abdullah was exuberantly upbeat in making the announcement, beaming cheek-to-cheek and hardly able to contain his almost boyish excitement. For a brief moment, he forgot that he had been married before! That is understandable, and we all can forgive him for that. He should not however, let the memory of his late wife to come between him and his new bride. He must live the present, and work toward a better and greater future.

For the first time I saw in him the promise of a reinvigorated leader, undoubtedly renewed and inspired by his new love. It is amazing, Bakri, what a woman can do to a man when love is in the air. I also noticed that Abdullah had a fresh look. Again, the renewed inspiration!

I am thrilled that he has found his new lifelong companion. Jeanne will be a great asset to him, his family, and our country. I have heard nothing but positive feedback on her character and personality. She has excellent people skills, and is comfortable with people from all walks of life. Her personality complements his. She is well organized and has modest taste, a marked contrast to Abdullah. She will be an elegant and competent hostess at Seri Perdana.

With her modern outlook and background as a career woman, Jeanne will be very comfortable accompanying the Prime Minister on his overseas visits. She will hold her own among the wives of other heads of states and royalty.

My hope is that some of Jeanne’s organizational and time management skills will rub off on her new husband. God knows, Abdullah needs them! An injection of self-discipline will also do him good. She has to, otherwise he will continue to be bogged down with useless official trivia, with no time left for her. Alternatively. he may devote so much attention to his new wife to the detriment of his official duties.

I hope she would be successful in imparting to him this central message: Deeds speak louder than words. This is the message you, Raja Petra and others have not been successful in imparting on Abdullah. She needs to bring a much-needed dose of realism to his life. We have had enough of that put-on “feel good” sentiment. We demand results now, nearly four years into his leadership.

Like many, I am torn between in wanting to believe that he can lead, now that he is a “new” man. The reality however, points toward nothing but hot air and NATO (No action, talk only).

Like others, I hope that with Jeanne by his side, Abdullah would now settle down and pay attention to the many problems facing our nation, like making it less corrupt and fixing the economy. In short, I hope she will inspire him not only to be a “new man” but also a “new” leader.

We Malaysians are a forgiving lot; we are willing to give him yet another chance to prove his leadership. I do not know why, as there is nothing in his track record to support our contention. Nonetheless I always have faith that we humans are capable of learning, adapting, changing our mindset, and renewing ourselves. I am going against my better judgment here, but it is my hope that with Jeanne beside him, he would have inner peace and be a leader worthy of our great nation.

Sallam,

Din Merican

Dear Din:

There is nothing more heartwarming than to see two people in love declaring their commitment to each other, and sharing that joyous news with us all. Love is always beautiful and precious, no matter how many times around.

The only sour note to an otherwise sweet occasion was when the Prime Minister’s office ordered the mainstream editors to tow the line on what and what not to report. They of course willingly obliged; the force of habit.

We cannot lay the blame solely on the control freaks of the Fourth Floor; they have too many enablers in the editorial floors of our newspapers, radio and television stations. If this is how the boys on the Fourth Floor handle the good news, imagine what they would do when the news is bad!

The last occasion when citizens were engrossed with details of their leader’s love life was the time when President Clinton was busy with that infamous intern in the closet of the Oval Office.

Deaths and marriages of our loved ones are life-transforming events. It is not unreasonable of you to expect change in Abdullah from his new marriage. This new groom may turn out to be a new man, and in turn an invigorated leader. There is always hope. At least the wedding will be a restrained affair, unlike the gaudy extravaganza of that forty-something Datuk who married the celebrity singer his daughter’s age. Perhaps Raja Nazrin’s example is beginning to have an impact on our people.

Yes, the man has been distracted by his late wife’s long battle with cancer. That her death was expected did not make it any less sorrowful. The last few years must have taken their toll on Abdullah. I cannot pretend to comprehend the burden that he and his family had to endure. It must have been considerable.

I have factored in those elements in my assessment of Abdullah. I look at his record during his earlier tenure as Education, Defense, and Foreign Minister, among other positions. These were when Endon was still very healthy; meaning, he had no personal distractions.

At his age, it is unlikely that Abdullah would have any hitherto hidden talent remaining untapped. The chance of a “late bloom” is remote.

Abdullah reminds me of the simpleton character Chauncy the gardener, played by the late Peter Sellers in the movie, Being There. His unobtrusive silence and simple witted utterances were mistaken as profundities. Chauncy went on to advise even the President!

God knows, many sharp minds in Malaysia were taken in by Abdullah! Just ask Mahathir! The difference between Chauncy the gardener and Abdullah the Prime Minister is that Chauncy had no advisors. What he uttered were his own words; he was his own true self. Fool on those who wanted to read or give something more to the simple gardening wisdom he uttered.

Abdullah’s advisors insulate him. Even if he were to be transformed by his new love, his advisors would remain the same, and so would their advice to him.

While the country has no choice but to tolerate his “No action, talk only” stance, Jeanne would definitely not be satisfied with Abdullah’s NATO, husband-wise!

My fear is that with Abdullah totally consumed with his newfound love, his advisors would now become even more emboldened. Abdullah would not be there, at least mentally, to restrain them.

Further, if before we could be forgiving of Abdullah for his being always sleepy at important meetings (blaming it on his personal problems), now with a new young wife, he would have an even better excuse to be sleepy during normal working hours!

I wish the happy couple many long blissful years, and I hope, Din, that your and other Malaysians’ expectations will also come true.

Sallam,

Bakri

Malaysia’s Special Freedom Zone

Sunday, May 20th, 2007

Blogging:  Malaysia’s Special Freedom Zone  (Exchanges With Din Merican)

Dear Bakri.

I was at the inaugural meeting of Malaysian bloggers held at the Lake View Club, Subang Jaya, on May 19, 2007.  I was invited as a guest of Desi Chong, presumably because I was identified with your webblog.

There were well over 100 bloggers participating, representing a broad political and social spectrum.  It was well organized, with a panel of speakers followed by substantive discussions.  It was also an opportunity for personal interactions and social networking.

It was not all business and intellectual feast however.  The two roasted lambs, compliments of Club owner Soh Chee Wen, together with the usual Malaysian fair, made for a fine social evening.  There was also some red wine for those so inclined, as well as a karaoke session afterwards.

The panel included Jeff Ooi (Screenshots – www.jeffooi.com), Marina Mahathir (www.rantingsbymm.blogspot.com), Tong Pua (Economic Advisor to DAP’s Lim Kit Siang – www.tonypua.blogspot.com), Rocky Bru (Ahirrudin Atan – www.rockybru.blogspot.com), Nadeswaran (Citizen-Nades of the Sun), Desi Chong (Chairperson – www.desiderata2000.blogspot.com), Thian Chua (KeADILan Information Chief), Raja Petra (www.Malaysia-Today.net), and a lecturer from the Institute of Press Relations.

The evening’s theme was “Embrace and Engage; The Role of the Fifth Estate.”  There were also various books on sale at the event, including your latest, Towards A Competitive Malaysia.

Raja Petra and Rocky Bru mentioned and acknowledged your contributions to the development of blogging in Malaysia and your ongoing efforts to keep the public informed of your perspectives on contemporary issues.  Rocky in particular admired your writings.

Raja Petra forthrightly told the audience that his blog was intended to “bring down the Government” of Abdullah Badawi!  He left no doubt in our minds where he was coming from, with the full knowledge that there were, as usual, Special Branch plainclothes officers in our midst.  He proudly mentioned that when he started his one-page blog in 1995, there were only 250,000 Internet users in the country.  Today, the number has shot up to 11 million.  His Malaysia-Today regularly gets daily hits of nearly two million.  He feels strongly that there is a desperate need for an alternative to the government-backed and political party-owned mainstream papers.

Raja Petra encouraged all, including our family members and friends, to be involved in a determined and sustained basis.  He urged us all to do three things.  First, register to vote; second, re-check the electoral roll to make sure that you are properly registered; and third, cast our ballots on voting day – even if it were snowing! – in favor of any opposition party.

He feels that the Abdullah Administration is corrupt and inept, run by a courtier of individuals around his son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin.  They include Kamal Abdullah (the son), Kallimullah, and Patrick Badawi.

As for personal and press freedom, Raja Petra argued that there was no material change under Abdullah.  It is the same as under Mahathir, but more subtle.  As long as there are the ISA and Press laws, we are never truly free.  Raja Petra revealed that he always received threats from the authorities whenever he was critical of Abdullah’s actions and policies.

Rocky Bru, who together with Jeff Ooi are being sued by the NST, said that he and a few friends had established a Bloggers Alliance Group, but was waiting for approval of the Registrar of Societies before they could commence activities.  This Group was intended to be a networking mechanism, and to provide some assistance with legal suits, especially of the “class action” variety.

Tony Pua urged bloggers to be balanced and responsible.  Only those blogs that are credible would have an impact on public opinion.  His personal blog was intended to provide up-to-date information on the state of the economy and an objective commentary on government policies.

Nadeswaran reminded us that the government could be heavy handed with bloggers and journalists critical of Badawi personally and of his Administration.  He pointed out that the Special Branch could literally turn up “in the middle of night and take you away from your family,” using “disrupting national unity” as the pretext.

While politicians like Minister of Information Zam, for whom Nadeswaran showed nothing but utter disgust, had threatened the public with the specter of May 13 and Ops Lallang, Nadeswaran reminded the audience that he was not intimidated.  He made sure however, that his facts are accurate.

Marina related how her friends encouraged her to blog when her 17-year Musings in The Star became constrained over the 800-word restriction.  She is often criticized as a “copy and paste thing” because she posted articles of topical interest to stimulate public discourse.

Bakri, you should consider doing a piece on our blogging community and how they could mobilize public opinion.  Highlight Raja Petra’s three suggestions on preparing for the upcoming elections.  Finally, you may wish to send your best wishes to all the bloggers mentioned above for their timely initiative.

Kind regards, Din

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Dear Din:

Thank you for your update on the Bloggers United meeting, dubbed BUM 2007 (thanks to someone’s sense of humor!).  Malaysian bloggers’ dynamism is anything but a bummer, except perhaps to the authorities!

            I read some of the comments on the other websites.  Someone had also thoughtfully videotaped the sessions and posted them on YouTube. Isn’t it amazing the power and reach of these new technologies!

In 1978 Deng Xiaoping, in thinking of ways to rebuild his country after the disastrous Mao decades, came upon the idea of Special Economic Zones to nudge his stagnant communist country into the modern economy.  From that early seed grew today’s modern China, with capitalism now embracing the whole nation and with that, a quantum leap in the well being of its citizens.  China is today only nominally communist, or as Deng would wickedly put it with a wink in his eye, communism with Chinese characteristics!

I look upon blogging specifically and the Information Technology (IT) generally as Malaysia’s Special Freedom Zones.  From this seed would sprout greater freedom in other, and ultimately all, spheres of Malaysian life.  At least that is my hope.  Unlike China’s Special Economic Zones that took decades to have their impact on the rest of the country, Malaysia’s Special Freedom Zone will exert its influence much more rapidly.

Unlike China’s Special Economic Zone which was a deliberate official policy, Malaysia’s Special Freedom Zone was an unintended (at least by the authorities) consequence of the country’s eagerness to embrace IT.  Prime Minister Mahathir, who spearheaded this, grudgingly accepted this trade off.  Even today, despite the obvious personal benefits to him after being shut off by the mainstream media once he was out of power, Mahathir still has second thoughts about granting this freedom.  It matters not as the genie is now out of the bottle.

Mahathir may not realize it, but his granting freedom to the IT sector may well be his greatest and most enduring legacy.  There is no stopping this movement towards greater freedom; the metaphorical Berlin Wall that blocks access to information in Malaysia is now broken.  It cannot be put together again.  On the contrary, the momentum of the wreckage will break down other barriers.

When I was writing for one mainstream paper, I would be lucky to hear from one or two readers occasionally.  I was not sure whether anyone was reading my commentaries or the editors were not publishing my readers’ letters.  Today I get hundreds of letters here on my blog as well as on Malaysia-Today.

Bernama bragged about getting half a million hits a day on its website because of its coverage of the Perak royal wedding.  Bernama editors obviously had not looked at Malaysia-Today’s figures.  The Star and New Straits would drool at figures a tiny fraction of MT’s!  No wonder Michael Backman named Raja Petra among the Top 20 Asian Progressives!

The blogs’ influence will expand and be even more powerful.  This is reflected in the declining circulation, readership and influence of the mainstream papers; they are fast being reduced to irrelevance.  NST is today nothing more than an UMNO newsletter.  It is noteworthy that Ahiruddin Atan is now more widely read and influential than when he was with the mainstream media.  Raja Petra’s aggressive investigative journalism reduces the mainstream journalists to sophomore reporters.

The authorities are forced to respond however ineptly to issues raised by bloggers, from Abdullah absconding to Perth during the devastating Johore floods to his ordering a luxury corporate jet.  The threat to register bloggers reflects this increasing reach; likewise with mega libel lawsuits.  These lawsuits will be futile.  As can be seen, with skillful lawyers these lawsuits can backfire on the plaintiffs.  Thanks to court filings, we now know of other instances of plagiarisms.

Even if the suits were successful, they would be meaningless.  All they would do is to make people use pseudonyms, Internet cafés, work on-line, and use overseas servers.

Even China is not successful with reining in the Internet.  Whatever success it has is through the unwilling help of IT companies.  Those companies are now being sued in California by Chinese nationals who had been detained by the Chinese, allegedly based on information provided by those companies.

However, as Raja Petra rightly noted, we need to go further.  The Abdullah Administration must be humbled, and the only way is through the ballot box.  I am with Raja Petra on this:  vote any opposition party.  You do not need to defeat the government in order to teach it a useful lesson.  Look at Bush with the recent midterm elections; Abdullah too is teachable.

We must bring out the jantans in our voters to impart the lesson to Abdullah.  To get rid of him however, we must encourage if not instigate the jantans in UMNO, if there are any left.

The organizers and participants of BUM 2007 have done the nation a great service.  Individually and collectively, they are cultivating the soil and planting the seeds of freedom.  I join you and others in thanking them for their untiring efforts.  I am humbled that folks like Ahiruddin Atan, Jeff Ooi, Nadeswaran, Raja Petra and others, despite the obstacles and threats hurled their way, bravely march on.  Raja Petra in particular, despite having been detained under the ISA, remains unfazed, in fact he is invigorated – a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit.

May they, and Malaysia, have continued success.

Sallam, Bakri

Delaying UMNO’s Elections: Exchanges With Din Merican

Sunday, October 8th, 2006

Delaying UMNO’s Elections: Exchanges With Din Merican

Summary: DM: Abdullah’s delaying UMNO’s elections is politically shrewd; it would enable him to consolidate his position within the party and buy time to mend the economy. It may however be a case of too little, too late. He has neither the political will nor the leadership skills to execute such a quick turnaround.
MBM: We are headed for a turbulent patch, and the captain’s skill is severely wanting. Fortunately Malaysia is sufficiently advanced that it could sustain itself on automatic pilot. Let us hope that Abdullah just stands there and not do something, especially if is something stupid.

Dear Bakri:

You may have read that Pak Lah postponed UMNO’s triennial Leadership Convention, scheduled for next year, till after the next general election. He said, “This was to ensure undivided and full concentration was accorded to the general election,” and added, “[T]his is a procedure and policy of the party and has been done twice previously.… [It is] beneficial for the party as it could give all full concentration to national development and implementing projects in the interest of the rakyat.”

His move did not surprise me. I hope he would not defer next month’s UMNO General Assembly. He is being politically pragmatic; he fully expects the delegates to be rough on him for “sleeping on the job,” as exemplified by Zaid Ibrahim’s recent comments. Similar tough comments have come from Shahrir Samad on the ECM Libra-Avenue Securities merger involving Abdullah’s son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, and his close associate, Kalimullah Hassan.

Tengku Razaleigh too made some strong remarks especially regarding the implementation of the 9MP. In an interview he said, “[N]othing has happened even in the 9MP. None of the projects has got off the ground. You name me one.”

Abdullah had neglected the economy; he had been too busy enjoying the perks of office by his frequent foreign trips and ceremonial engagements with ASEAN, OIC and NAM. He was also distracted by the personal problems with his late wife. He now wants to buy some time to revive the economy before facing his party and the people in 2008.

He is just deluding himself into believing that he could execute a turnaround in the economy in such a short time. He just does not have what it takes to lead. He is simply not credible and does not have the political will to make things happen, and happen quickly.

Razaleigh had this to say on Badawi’s attempts to reform the system, “Well, we can wait until 300 years later. I’m not saying it’s not going to happen, but it’s going to take a long time.… You talk about fighting corruption – you may catch one or two and that’s it but so many more are corrupt. But let us get on with something for the people – to get jobs and investments while you carry on tinkering with all these things which are going to take time.” In short, we need to jumpstart the nation’s economy and boost investors’ confidence.

In the short term delaying the leadership convention is a shrewd move. It would enable him to purge the party of Mahathir’s supporters. Badawi hopes that with his team in place and the economy on the mend, he can protect his legacy and be re-elected.

To me his latest maneuver is a manifestation of his weakness within the party. He can no longer hide that fact. Criticisms from Tun Mahathir and others have obviously taken their toll. Badawi’s postponing the leadership conference is merely an attempt at trying to capitalize on his incumbency.

Whether it will work remains to be seen. It would depend on the economy and investors’ confidence. It would be tough as the IMF-World Bank projects slower growth globally in 2007 and 08. He may not be able carry the civil servants with him this time, as he had denied them their pay raise. The country is also hobbled by rising prices of basic foods. Price controls succeeded only in more rules and regulations leading to supply bottlenecks, price distortions, and corruption.

Fortunately oil prices have eased, giving him room to reduce the pump price if he so chooses. The recent substantial oil price hikes were very unpopular, as expected. The surprise was that his advisors did not anticipate that!

With slower global growth hurting our exports, Abdullah will have no choice but to stimulate the domestic sector. Fortunately he has some flexibility here as the fiscal deficit has improved. The question is whether the effects of such stimulation would be felt by election time. It may be a case of too little, too late.

He may be politically astute in postponing the UMNO elections but good politics alone would not compensate for his inept handling of the economy. He should seek wider counsel by listening to his party elders, the business community, and the struggling men and women in the Malay street instead.

That is my take, what is yours?

Thanks, Din

M. Bakri Musa’s reply:

Dear Din:

It is hard to find any silver lining to this dark cloud that is Abdullah Badawi. You are being charitable to him, and that is appropriate during this Ramadan season. We are in for turbulent weather ahead, so better buckle-up.

Our pilot may have spent decades in the cockpit, but only as the flight engineer or first officer. In the strict Asian tradition of deferring to authority, he is used to only taking orders from the captain but never having to make the tough decisions. Thus far he is content enjoying being adulated as the captain, and marveling at the controls available to him.

He barely understands those levers except at the mechanical level. Move that yoke towards him and the plane will go up; push it away and the plane will nose down. He does not comprehend the underlying physics or aerodynamics.

Fortunately the modern aircraft is well designed and sturdy, with many redundant systems and failsafe features such that even a monkey could not crash it. The only design not factored in is for some maniac intent on crashing the machine onto a tower.

Malaysia is sufficiently advanced with a robust private sector. Malaysians are also more educated and better informed. The nation is akin to a 747 jet, even an idiot could not to crash it; only a determined crazy jihadist could. Badawi is closer to the former, not the latter. Malaysia should count its blessings in that respect.

Abdullah’s courtiers are content humoring their man, and he is enthralled with being a “show captain.” That would prevent him from wrecking too much havoc. Malaysia has an adequate autopilot to pull it through the rough patches. It would not be pretty, but survivable.

Malaysians may be exasperated with Badawi but I do not envisage a Thailand solution. Malaysians are too smart to let that happen.

I am ever mindful that with all the criticisms heaped upon him, Abdullah might just be tempted to do something just to show that he is in control. The instinct would be to, “Just don’t stand there, do something!” That would be dangerous as he could wreck considerable damage by doing something inappropriate. I would rather that he would not do anything but just stand there!

Unfortunately while Abdullah is enthralled with being the tenth sultan, his family, the “Fourth Floor boys,” and their cronies are busy plundering the nation.

There is of course a world of difference between merely surviving and thriving. If Vietnam were to thrive while Malaysia merely survived, then the knives would be out. By then however the old man would be thinking of his retirement and the Hereafter. A few perks and a Tunship, and he could be easily be persuaded to leave, especially if we promise him a royal send off!

I do not share your optimism, or more correctly your hope, on Badawi. I am however optimistic on Malaysians. They will continue ahead regardless of what the government does or does not do. Of course it would be better if the government were there to spur and help them.

Abdullah is secure in his ignorance. We should however not let up in our criticisms. Eventually only his courtier and cheerleaders would think that their man is donned in samping sutra. Everyone else could plainly see that he is wrapped in only tattered bark loincloth, essentially naked.

Malaysia survived the communist insurgency and the May 1969 riot; it will also survive Badawi’s ineptness. The magnitude of the lost opportunity would be significant, and would be borne primarily by today’s young. It is this that angers me most, and spurs me to be tough on his leadership, or rather lack of one.

It’s Still The Economy, Stupid!

Sunday, July 16th, 2006

It’s Still the Economy, Stupid!
Exchanges With Din Merican

July 10th, 2006

Dear Bakri:

Thank you for sharing your professional and personal thoughts on Prime Minister Abdullah’s recent “simple sinus surgery.” I also read your latest posting, your “Open Letter” to PM Abdullah.

I have been busy and not had a chance to contribute to your website. Currently I am jointly editing a book of the papers and speeches presented at the April 2006 Second Conference of Asia Economic Forum, University of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. Your readers too have noticed my absence. Rest assured I am well, Praise be to Allah! Congratulations and best wishes with your latest book!

I have not heard anything here to indicate that the PM’s recent “simple sinus surgery” could be something more. As a surgeon, your professional observation certainly merits some thought. A leader’s health is a matter of public concern. In the United States, the President’s physical and mental conditions are being regularly monitored and evaluated.

As you said, why would he go to Australia for something simple unless that “simple procedure” turns out to be a biopsy. I too do not trust the official pronouncements. I remember one of your earlier essays on the curious silence on Datin Seri Endon’s illness. Shortly after you wrote that, she passed away. All the while, officials and her physicians were making optimistic statements on her strength and resilience right to the time of her death. Our nation went into a state of shock at the apparent suddenness of the event. We knew the late Datin Seri was a tower of strength to our Prime Minister. I hope and pray that the PM’s procedure was nothing beyond a “simple sinus surgery.”

There have been sniping locally and in cyberspace as to why he chose to go to Perth for his “simple surgery.” If it were simple why not have it done locally? After all as you noted, Dr. Mahathir had his heart operation done here even though at that time many leaders suggested that he went abroad.

Recently Tun Mahathir jokingly lamented that he was in the habit of making poor choices when it comes to personnel. He was of course referring to his chosen successor. I am glad and agree with you that at least in choosing Dr. Yahya Awang as his heart surgeon, he picked the right one. You must be very proud to have played a role in Dr. Yahya’s training when you were in JB. Your high opinion of him certainly bears out. He did the first heart transplant in the region, and was recently awarded a Tan Sri, one of the few given to other than politicians or civil servants. Dr. Ismail Merican, the current Director-General of Health, was also given his Tan Sri recently.

Perhaps AAB in choosing to have his surgery in Perth believed that his observation about our country having First World facilities and Third World mentality also applies to your profession.

I do not know much about AAB’s state of health, but he certainly does not look good. He is nervous due to the mounting public pressures over rising inflation, low Foreign Direct Investment, dismal stock market activity, and slower economic growth. There is little vitality.

I agree with you that he seems distracted, prone to waffle, unable to concentrate (as you indicated in your open letter), and has limited attention span. He is drifting and grasping for breath. Could he be worried about his health? There could be a family pow wow in Perth, where he is said to be resting after his sinus operation.

In the final analysis, his personal health may be irrelevant. My take on the current politics in UMNO, and our country is this: It is still the economy, stupid! In my view, if a leader does not understand that his primary responsibility to Malaysians is to create conditions favorable for domestic and foreign investments (that is jobs and income via economic growth), then he is failing his pledge of office.

AAB should deal with the short-term aspects of 9MP to jumpstart the economy. He should not wait for the 2007 Budget but act now, with some quick pump priming measures.

Tun Mahathir will be relentless in seeking answers to his famous four questions directly from Badawi himself, instead from his subordinates like Syed Hamid, Nazri and Rafidah. Mahathir will not stop until he gets satisfactory explanations. The Tun’s criticisms resonate with the public; we too want answers beyond pat statements. We know that Badawi will not be able to withstand the continuous assault since he basically does not know what is happening in his own administration, and cannot control his ministerial barons.

Syed Hamid is hiding behind considerations of secrecy and national security as his reasons for not disclosing details and declassifying documents relating to the sale of sand to Singapore and related issues. Nazri, on the other hand, is attacking Mahathir on a personal level, but there is already a backlash against the minister. Some UMNO divisions want Nazri sacked from the party.

Rafidah (Kak Pidah to Wanita UMNO) is just unable to give us an answer as to why she gave most of the APs to one of her former MITI staff. For her, she has answered the Tun’s questions by her letter to him.

Proton’s former CEO Tan Sri Tunku Mahaleel in an interview recently explained the effects of the new National Automotive Policy and the sale of Augusta. You can view videotape on Raja Petra’s www.malaysia-today.net. I thought the former Proton chief made a compelling case that the company’s heavy investment in R&D through Augusta suffered severely. He also questioned the wisdom of having three national car companies.

Abdullah’s spinners too are demoralized because they can no longer defend him against an increasingly skeptical public. The public thinks he is incompetent and weak, as you say in your open letter, “lembab.” His son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin’s and Kalimullah’s days may be numbered, and UMNO members are after their blood.

Kali is suing Mahathir’s former assistant, Mathias Chang, for defamation. This will not help Abdullah’s cause. I note that Khairy is curiously silent these days.

I am told from fairly reliable sources that there is apparently considerable pressure for Abdullah to step down before the next UMNO General Assembly in September 2006. May be they will gave him a face-saving way out, in the usual Asian tradition. They will ask him to step down and reward him with a Tunship together with a bundle of cash. That would definitely be cheaper considering the damage he has already inflicted on the economy. Look at the ringgit and the mounting losses in KLSE since he took office from his illustrious predecessor. It is not likely that the Prime Minister would give up power that easily since those close to him would be affected in the same way that Tun Mahathir’s supporters are now experiencing.

Then there is Najib’s increasing prominence in recent months on matters of national importance. Zam’s idea of a trusted UMNO personality to broker talks between Mahathir and Abdullah is already nipped in the bud. Fancy using the Governor of Malacca to be involved in politics again! I think Mahathir will not directly refuse to meet Abdullah, but the fact that the Zam’s idea was crushed prematurely speaks volumes.

Over the next few months, Malaysia will go through a period of political uncertainty over the question of who will succeed AAB as President of UMNO, as thus as PM. I remain optimistic that if there were to be a change in the leadership, it would be smooth and orderly.

Sallam,
Din

The Bold and The Predictable – Exchanges with Din Merican

Sunday, March 12th, 2006

The Bold and The Predictable: Exchanges with Din Merican

A Reaction to Brendan Pereira

Dear Bakri:

I am sure you have read Brendan Pereira’s latest weekend column, “Plain Talk” (The New Sunday Times, March 5, 2006). He asserted that “…Malaysians saw the bold and the predictable take center stage.” That was just too much for me. Frankly, I am tired of the endless spin and lack of candor in our public discourse, as exemplified by Brendan’s latest piece.

In his usual sycophantic mode, he praises our Prime Minister for being “bold” in choosing “a politically punishing path.” The reality is that over the nearly three years of his Administration, Abdullah is anything but bold. He has yet to demonstrate any sense of direction or urgency about where he wants to take our nation. To Brendan, that is bold, but I call it “chicken.” Just look at the recent Cabinet reshuffle.

We are all fully aware that the era of cheap oil is over. Raising the oil price is therefore not the issue. What surprises Malaysians is the timing, as well as the magnitude of the increase (up 30 cents). Brendan characterizes it as “… Abdullah going down the path of most resistance.” On the contrary, it is foolhardy. The Prime Minister is squandering the massive political capital he garnered in the last general (2004) elections.

The Prime Minister justified his decision by saying that the RM 4 billion in savings would be allocated towards improving public transportation. Will it? Think again.

He also promised Malaysians that there would be no more price hikes for the remainder of this year. He would have to break that promise if crude oil prices, now at USD64+ per barrel, were to increase again. The economic dynamics are there, with the voracious demands from the rapidly expanding economies of China and India, as well the recovering economies of Europe. Combine these with the uncertainties over the political situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, the unrest in Nigeria, and the mounting tensions between the US and the European Union on one side and the Islamic Republic of Iran on the other over that country’s desire to develop nuclear power.

Imagine what would happen if crude oil prices were to rise to USD70-80 per barrel. The savings of RM4 billion would be wiped out, and additional subsidies would be required to maintain the pump prices at current levels. To avoid that, he would have to raise prices again. That would be the only realistic option for him.

Brendan’s profile in courage (as it were) has a very low threshold. He extols Abdullah’s courage, but the man would not dare face the public on TV to explain his decision. He had to defer to his Deputy Prime Minister. Thanks to the persuasive powers of Dato Seri Najib Tun Razak, we were spared massive street protests and civil unrest.

The timing of the Prime Minister’s decision is totally out of sync, what with our economy slowing down, and both inflation and unemployment rising. Malaysians would have tolerated the increase better had the economy been expanding. This price hike will fuel a fresh round of increases in the price of essential goods and services, with the burden borne disproportionately, as usual, by the low income and rural folks.

Brendan cites the example of Japan where “the economic powerhouse did not hit the panic button until after the 1970s oil crisis.” He conveniently ignores the fact that although oil prices quadrupled then, it started from a very low base. Consequently it was nowhere near the present level of USD64+ per barrel. He continues, “[T]he country embarked on a major effort to wean itself off oil. Japan imports 16 percent less oil [in 1974] than it did in 1973 although the economy has more than doubled. Billions of (USD) dollars were invested in converting in oil-reliant electricity-generation systems into those powered by natural gas, coal, nuclear energy or alternative fuels …. Today, it has turned energy efficiency into an art.”

That is fine, but he forgets to mention that Malaysia exports its natural gas to Japan on a long term contract basis, and thus guarantees Japan of stable pricing.

What happened to our energy diversification policy that was initiated under Tun Dr. Mahathir’s Administration? It was a practical and far sighted policy. Why was it not implemented? Minister Lim Keng Yaik and Tenaga Nasional under Leo Moggie must answer this.

Investing to improve public transportation (little success thus far) alone will not help us if we continue to be an oil-driven economy. What happened to the Bakun hydropower plant and the rural electrification projects using palm kernel, methane gas, and related wastes? There is an urgent need to have alternative sources of energy and the better utilization and management of our utilities. We should move away from ad hoc approaches and piecemeal solutions.

If Japan can be “Cemerlang, Gemilang dan Terbilang,” Malaysia too can be likewise. What is needed is a clear vision and political will, both sadly lacking with the present Administration.

Brendan took issue with the opposition parties. Why criticize PAS for holding the demonstrations? The Opposition is always looking for opportunities to criticize the ruling party. PAS politicians have been doing that for years and as long as I can remember. That is in the nature of democratic politics. The recent oil price hike gives them and their supporters the excuse to go back to the streets. I am not surprised.

I agree that “The PM knows that he is being savaged on the ground because of the price hike. In recent days, he [PM] told aides that this is the price that must be paid.”

I would add that the real price is yet to come as he continues to show a lack of strategic and economic leadership. Abdullah is engaging in gostand economics with his emphasis on agriculture to propel our country into the 21st century. In the universe of our balance of payments, the cost for food imports pales to the huge invisibles deficit in the form of our service payments. We should be focusing on upgrading the skills and knowledge of our people so they could be productive in this age of the K-economy. Instead, our Prime Minister wants us all to be amateur farmers. Even if all of us were to plaster our backyards with kacang panjang, that would still not make a dent on the nation’s balance of payment. So get real!

Abdullah’s “edible landscape” and “community gardens” campaigns smell of Chairman Mao’s back-to the-earth movement of the Cultural Revolution era. Thank God, Abdullah does not have Mao’s charisma; otherwise our nation would be wrecked. We should be encouraging our farmers to modernize and to benefit maximally from the economy of scale; not turn urbanites into backyard gardeners. Pol Pot tried the same trick in Cambodia not too long ago, and forced city dwellers into the fields. We all know what happened to that piece of silly social engineering. Naive schemes produce equally naive results; in some instances, disaster.

Of course making sure that our schools and universities produce graduates prepared for the demands of globalization is much more challenging. That requires great thought and courageous actions, not mindless sloganeering.

I keep hoping but recognize that it is wishful thinking on my part to expect Brendan and his ilk in the mainstream media to have the courage to speak the “truth to power.”

Din Merican

Reply:

Dear Din:

Yes, I read Brendan’s piece, as well as an earlier one by Razak Baginda on the same topic. Read is not quite the right word, more like scan. It takes me less than a few minutes to finish NST and The Star. There is nothing substantive there, and poorly written to boot.

Even the Sun has overtaken NST in circulation numbers. The Star is not much better. Witness its editors chickening out on Marina’s recent piece.

These commentators are serving our nation poorly. At a time when we need sober and serious analyses, they are content with cheerleading. Then they wonder why they lose their credibility.

Years ago NST published my essay, “More Than A Malay Dilemma,” in which I posited that the greatest threat facing Malaysia was not interracial strife but intra-Malay conflict. It was the inaugural piece for its millennium series. The editor praised me profusely saying that my piece had caused a “buzz” among the establishment.

A few days later I was in Malaysia visiting. I was aching to hear comments on my supposedly “buzzing” piece. No one had read it! Yes, they subscribed to NST, but mainly for show as they never bothered reading them as they are full of unabashed propaganda. NST is now nothing more than an UMNO Newsletter.

All these newsmen and commentators have is their credibility; once they lose that, they might as well quit and be speech writers or write advertising copies. The pay is better.

As for the oil subsidy crisis, if Abdullah could not handle this 30-sen reduction, good luck in his endeavor to remove the crutches of the NEP and create the “Towering Personality” among Malays!

Bakri Musa

Exchanges with Din Merican: Open Letter to Shahrizat

Sunday, January 22nd, 2006

Exchanges with Din Merican: Open Letter to Datuk Shahrizat

Dear Din:

Thank you very much for sharing your letter to Dato’ Sharizat; I share your dismay and I applaud you for your courage in voicing it.

The whole episode, from the hastily-drawn amendments to their quick passage in Parliament, and the subsequent decision not to gazette the new laws, paints an amateurish air to the administration. This is a government that cannot get its act together, the “gang that could not shoot straight.” At least the movie version is hilarious and very entertaining.

I put the blame for this and other fiascos squarely on the captain of the ship, Abdullah Badawi. His ineptness and lack of discipline, long apparent to me, has finally been exposed, even emboldening some in his Cabinet to intimidate him.

You have perceptively noted the deafening silence of Anwar Ibrahim and Rafidah Aziz. The same could be said of our supposedly “brilliant,” “articulate,” and “daring” younger leaders like Khairy Jamaluddin.

I truly admire the patience and forbearance of Malaysians. I hope they have a deep reservoir of both, for this silly episode will not be the last. I can hardly wait for the next act, which I bet will be soon. This circus would be amusing except that it affects the lives of millions.

Unfortunately, I do not see the curtain falling down anytime soon on this folly of a show.

Sallam,

M. Bakri Musa

Din Merican’s Open Letter to Datuk Shahrizat

January 18, 2006

Y< strong>B. Dato Hajjah Shahrizat Binti Abdul Jalilg>
Minister of Women’s Affairs and Social Welfare, MP for Pantai
Kuala Lumpur

Dear YB Dato Hajjah Shahrizat,

The recent action by the Government to allow the passage in Parliament amendments to the Muslim Family Law is a matter of serious concern to Muslims of both sexes. Even non-Muslims are now worried about this high-handed action of the Barisan Nasional Government and its agencies.

The whole affair reflects poorly on the government, specifically Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and his Cabinet team. Although I agree with Cabinet’s decision to delay gazetting the new law, this action creates a dangerous precedent.

At the most superficial level, this delay in gazetting merely confirms the widespread suspicion among citizens that the whole exercise was shoddily prepared and even more ineptly executed. Sadly, this pretty well mirrors the overall performance of this administration.

More ominous, the cabinet has now set a dangerous precedent in that future legislations passed by Parliament could be held hostage by the Cabinet. This would seriously breach our hallowed precept of the separation of powers in our system of governance. As a lawyer, you should enlighten us under what provision of the constitution was the cabinet’s action taken. The day may come when parliament would pass sensible laws only to have the cabinet thwart the will of the people as expressed by Parliament.

There are other serious and wide ranging implications. It reflects arrogance on the part of the Government. Prime Minister Badawi’s impressive mandate does not extend to introducing laws without properly consulting all stakeholders in our pluralistic society. It does not reassure or comfort me that the Government is interested in the welfare of its citizens.

I wonder what our Government will do next with its resounding electoral mandate. Already Selangor’s JAWI is defiantly forming a uniformed moral squad to police us, in effect an extra-constitutional vigilante group, despite the strong public abhorrence to such moral policing.

The actions of the government have already spawned and emboldened the ugly extremist elements amongst us. The burglary at the office of the Executive Director of Sisters-in-Islam and the theft of her personal computer, and more significantly, the noticeable lack of vigorous response from the authorities, is the harbinger of things to come. The brazenness of these culprits, and the seeming acquiescence of the authorities, is even more remarkable considering that Sisters-in-Islam counts among its active members the daughter of the Prime Minister.

Frankly, I am surprised with your quiet acceptance of the amendments. As a lawyer, an elected Member of Parliament, and as Deputy Head of Wanita UMNO, you have chosen not to strenuously object to the passage of these amendments. You gave the excuse that they can be re-examined at some future date. You know, as much as I do, how difficult, complex, and time consuming the process of law making is in our country.

Verbal assurances by you and the Prime Minister are not sufficient. You cannot play politics with our future. To me, your action as Minster in charge of Woman Affairs shows that you lack the courage of your conviction. You should have stood up against what is clearly an unjust law against Muslim women.

As Muslims we are ever mindful of the recurring refrain in the Quran, “Command good and forbid evil.” Our Holy Book goes further. A beautiful verse exhorts us that when we see evil or injustice being perpetrated, we must attempt to stop it with our hands. Failing that, then we must stop it with our tongue. If we could not even do that, then at least we must condemn it in our heart, realizing fully well that Allah is least pleased with this last course of action.

Had you and your senior female colleague in the Cabinet, Rafidah Aziz, raised your hands to object, this whole ugly and highly embarrassing episode would not have happened. With your talent and skill as a lawyer you could have used your tongue to voice your dissent to your cabinet colleagues and the Prime Minister. Alas, you did not. Now we have only your word that you disagree in your heart.

The surprising silence of your otherwise highly forceful and very vocal colleague, Rafidah Aziz, is eerie and perplexing. As Head of Wanita UMNO, she has a special obligation to have her views and concerns heard. I do not expect your junior sisters in Cabinet like Dr. Mashitah to be assertive. They are still too enamored with and busy basking in their newly-acquired ministerial status.

I can only surmise that, to be charitable, you and Rafidah Aziz are both trying hard “to change the system from within,” to quote your erstwhile colleague, Anwar Ibrahim. Surely after being in the cabinet for decades, Rafidah should have the courage to stick her neck out. That she chose not do makes me believe that she has developed the bodek culture to a fine art.

Anwar’s curious silence on the issue is expected. Ever the political opportunist, he is still sticking his proverbial wet finger to the wind. So much for political courage and leadership!

I hope you will examine your conscience and do what is right for our nation. I hope the Prime Minister and you take to heart the ten principles of Islam Hadhari (Civilizational Islam), and that they are not merely electioneering slogans.

The world community is also closely monitoring developments following the passage of these unjust amendments. We cannot ignore international public opinion and do what we please in this globalised world.

Women rights are also human rights. Muslim women demand equal and fair treatment and I, as a Muslim male, strongly support their position. Their rights cannot be abridged or brushed aside to accommodate conservative Islamists and power-seeking Ulamaks. As the Minister in charge, you are expected to champion the rights of women, and especially Muslim women. These are not amorphous beings or votes to be counted in elections. These women are you, your mother, sisters, daughters, friends and neighbors.

Sallam and yours sincerely,

Din Merican

Exchanges with Din Merican

Monday, November 21st, 2005

The Fate of Our Universiti Malaya

Dear Bakri:

If you subscribe to the New Sunday Times, you might care to look at the University of Malaya’s (UM) advertorial (November 20, 2005 Page H7) by the Vice Chancellor, Dr. Hashim Yaccob. In it, he explains the institution’s drop in ranking to 169 among the top 200 universities ranked by The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) 2005 Survey.

First, he says that there are some 30,000 universities worldwide. Only 200 (0.67 per cent) made the list. He implies that the ranking is not representative. Second, he highlights the fact that UM is in the 0.67 per cent top band. Not bad, he thinks, except he ignores the fact that UM was ranked 89th in the previous year. Obviously, he is not concerned with the downgrading and that UM is a distant “also ran.”

This is pure hubris. He is unwilling to acknowledge that UM is no longer the respected university that it once was (when it was known as the University of Malaya) in the 1950s, 60s and 70s when Sir Alexander Oppenheim ( a world class mathematician), Professor Syed Hussein Alatas (a well known sociologist) and Professor Ungku Aziz (a respected economist) were its Vice Chancellors. We had visiting professors from Harvard, Chicago, University of British Columbia, and McGill, as well as foreign students doing their undergraduate, Masters and PhD degrees.

To me it matters that UM be in the top 20, or better, in the top 10. If UM were in the top 50 or 90, there is nothing to brag about.

It certainly does not merit an advertorial from the Vice Chancellor, who is in charge of administration and in ensuring the quality of research and teaching at the university. Under his watch, UM has deteriorated dramatically in terms of academic ranking and reputation.

Dr. Hashim said that UM is ranked 45th in the Arts and Humanities, 83rd in the Social Sciences, and 82nd in Biomedicine. He did not mention how UM is ranked in the sciences or technology. Why? Could it be because UM never made it in the top 100 in these categories? These are critical disciplines where the Government has accorded top priority.

I wonder where the National University of Singapore (NUS) ranks in these two categories (science and technology). The fact that it ranks in the top 20 overall means that it has beaten UM flat in both science and technology as well as the other fields except in the Arts and Humanities (the Bangsawan and Sandiwara subjects). Remember, both NUS and UM were once part of the University of Malaya. That is, both started from the same point, before separating in 1962/63.

Dr. Hashim criticizes the evaluation criteria used by THES. For example, he said that not a single professor from UM was selected to be on the peer review panel. Quoting him, “… it is perhaps safe to assume that many of them [reviewers] came from the advanced countries of the West. It is only reasonable to expect them to give preference to universities in their own countries.” He is implying a bias in the survey.

Can we assume that NUS and the University of Melbourne are more favored than UM in the peer review? Dato Mustapha Mohamed, Dato Tajol Rosli and others who graduated from University of Melbourne would not like that. Would the inclusion of a UM’s representative in the review panel made any difference? I submit not.

The UM’s Vice Chancellor also commented on student-staff ratio, citations, foreign academic staff, foreign student enrolment, and employer ranking. He attributed UM’s failure to have more foreign students and academic staff to Government policy. I assume he means our Bumiputra Policy favoring Malays in student enrolment and staff recruitment and promotion. No wonder outstanding professors like K.S. Jomo, Terrance Gomez, G. Sivalingam and others have left.

Dr. Hashim’s final plea is, and I quote, “The experience of excellent universities worldwide gives us a salutary lesson on what we have to do to maintain our position in the future …. This requires a strategic plan for internal and external development…. For our present aspirations to become a reality, we need the support of the people of Malaysia to enable UM to achieve excellence as a national asset which belongs to us all. It is as a national asset that we can say with some pride that UM has become a better university this year than it was in previous years, and that UM is a university of national standing with an outstanding and improving international reputation.”

He sounds more like a politician than “a calm and sober (and as far as possible objective)” academician. What reputation has UM left now that it is ranked 169th, down from 89 in 2004? Is he suggesting that his predecessor messed up UM? Is he the savior? He seems to be pleading for renewal of his contract!

I am very disappointed with the advertorial. It reflects our culture of excuses whenever we fail to measure up internationally. It is time for our Government to take drastic measures to deal with mediocrity. Otherwise we should stop promoting Malaysia as a center for educational and research excellence. Let us stop kidding ourselves.

As a graduate of the old University of Malaya, I am very concerned that its successor institution, Universiti Malaya, is at the bottom end of the THES ranking. It is time for the incumbent UM Vice Chancellor to opt for early retirement. We should hire a reputable executive search firm to find a successor. Give the new VC a strong mandate to restore the academic standing and reputation of Universiti Malaya.

The government had a committee under Tan Sri Wan Zahid, the former Director-General of Education, to make recommendations on reforming higher education. Most of the committee members were insiders; they created the problem in the first place. Even Tan Sri Murad is no good. Professor Emeritus Khoo Kay Kim, another committee member, sold himself to the other side. He is content with enjoying his retirement and the occasional publicity he gets as a Malaysian history expert and soccer pundit. These types cannot be expected to deliver a “brutally frank and reasonably objective” report. I do not expect any stunning revelations or fresh ideas from these characters.

To my mind, education is too serious a business to be left in the hands of politicians, or their lap dogs in the academy and ministry.

Thanks and all the best to you, Bakri.

Din

Exchanges with Din Merican

Monday, October 17th, 2005

Dear Bakri,

I read your piece on Endon’s health. You said a lot there, short of suggesting that Abdullah Badawi is unfit to govern, given his mental and emotional state. Those who understand what you are saying know that Badawi will have to make a choice: leave office to concentrate on helping his wife in her valiant effort to recover from her cancer, or concentrate on the affairs of state fully. He has to make the difficult choice between personal and national priorities. In my view, he should do a Nixon (in 1974), that is, just step down and let Najib take over. Abdullah should not leave matters to his inexperienced son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin and his fellow Oxbridgdians.

It is true that Badawi is not concentrating on his job. This is common knowledge in KL. You are the first to have come out in the open. Here in Malaysia everyone is so polite. The 2005-2006 Budget was written while he was LA to be with Endon, leaving his second-in-command at the Finance Ministry to deal with it. Nor Mohamed is, in my view, a washout, given his track record.

We need another Daim-and-Mahathir (DM) team) to fix our current economic slowdown and uncertainty. Both of them were hands-on and knowledgeable stewards of our economy. Both also had significant business experiences and they had the guts to execute their policies.

Badawi returned from LA just in time to deliver the Budget Speech without really understanding the thinking and strategies behind it. When the media questioned him about the specifics, he fumbled. When the Finance Minister fumbles, investors and the public lose confidence. Our international rating like Standards & Poor will slide further. We are also down again on the International Corruption Index. He promised a lot but has done nothing. Badawi has become a bullshitter of the highest order.

The Prime Minister’s job is not ceremonial or symbolic. We have our King to play that role. The Prime Minister must truly be a chief executive and a “nut-and-bolts” manager with a clear head and guts. His job is to run the country, including the economy, with macro policies. He should manage the implementation machinery to make sure it executes his policies faithfully and properly. Badawi urgently needs to create jobs, promote sustainable economic growth, and keep inflation in check.

Cutting the budget deficit without any clear strategy is foolhardy. He did that purely to be seen as being different from Mahathir. All Badawi succeeded was to effectively put a sudden break on the economy and thereby stalling it. It would take at least 18 months for the momentum to build up again. The lack of consumer and investor confidence, poor ratings by international agencies, and low tax revenues cause Malaysia to raise foreign bonds at a higher coupon rate and at deeper discounts because of the rising US interest rates. The ex-TNB Chairman, Jamaluddin Jarjis, is persuading Badawi to borrow via international bonds to fund our biotechnology program. This coming from the man behind the TNB bond issue fiasco!

Badawi should leverage our high savings and Petronas cash. Instead, he encouraged the private sector to invest abroad. In truth, we require domestic investments so that foreign direct investments would follow suit. If we do not have confidence in our economy, we cannot expect others to be bullish.

You were right when you said we should not have postponed the double-track KTM railway project. We also should not depress the construction sector by sending Indonesian workers home in disgrace.

In short, Badawi has become a laughing stock of the investing community, local and foreign, and the Malaysian public is getting very agitated. I am furious as you can see from my exchanges on your website.

The above is my reaction after reading your piece on Endon’s health.

Regards, Din

Exchanges with Din Merican

Thursday, September 29th, 2005

Dear Din:

Thank you for sending me the laudatory piece on Badawi that appeared in Singapore’s Straits Times. I do not share the writer’s enthusiasm for Pak Lah. He is like a golfer who has good swings, but there is no follow through.

That writer commented favorably on Pak Lah’s utterancesses (swings) but said nothing of his achievements (follow through) because there were none. Pak Lah’s fight against corruption is such that Isa Samad (found guilty of money politics by his own party) is still in the Cabinet, Osu Sukum (with multimillion dollar gambling debts) is still in UMNO’s Supreme Council, and the latest flap, expensive retirement parties for civil servants, is a bust. The Police Commission Report is just that – a report, and a very expensive one.

I dearly wish for him to succeed, but he is detracted by two major events: One, his wife’s serious if not fatal illness, and two, basically he has not done any reading since his graduation. In short, his intellectual horizon is limited and he is satisfied with blurting out headlines given to him by his son-in-law.

I am noticing something strange. Almost the only positive comments on Badawi come from the Singapore media. It too, like that in Malaysia, is government controlled. My gut feeling is that those Singapore folks have figured out that Badawi is your typical Malay, susceptible to flattery. Praise a Malay effusively, and he will give away his inheritance. The British did that very effectively with our Sultans and now the Singapore Chinese are eagerly learning the lessons of the Brits.

Appreciate your comments!

Sallam,
Bakri

Dear Bakri:

Pak Lah has been in government and politics for a long time. He has enough experience. He has not been a clerk all these times and he must have learned something. His boys cannot continue to spin on his behalf. That has to end fast.

Investors, local and foreign, have no confidence in him. He just does not have the intellectual and physical energy to lead our country. We face challenging times ahead that demand firm and decisive action.

I do not expect much from the 2006 Budget because our civil servants and policy professionals have run out of ideas. He is certainly not providing the leadership.

We need growth; people must have jobs. Cutting the budget deficit is simplistic; it stifles growth. Yes, we need to manage public spending better and allocate resources more rationally. Right now much of the public spending is wasteful, and the politicians, corrupt. As the public leadership is essentially in Malay hands, this gives our race a dirty reputation.

Badawi has been away, again, for the past few weeks. Fancy that! As Minister of Finance, he is not involved in budget preparations and strategies. He is reduced to simply reading a speech in Parliament! When journalists asked him detailed questions, dia gagap saja (he stuttered!). Investors lose confidence when the leader does not know what he is talking about or just fumbles. His Trade and Industry Minister is a prime example of ministerial irresponsibility. As Badawi is a weak leader, the barons and warlords are at war with each other in his Cabinet and party.

Mahathir too, as Prime Minister, was swallowed up by the YAB (the Right Honorable) syndrome and forgot himself. Now he is back in the real world, minus the adulations and trappings of the office of prime minister. I am sure in his private moments he is full of regrets. Eventually, like us, he too will face Almighty Allah and have to account for his deeds. I admire the man greatly yet I am quite disappointed with his management of our country and UMNO.

I am an admirer of Mahathir, but I find that he does not have the ability to choose good people. You pointed this out to me years ago. You were right.

The hallmark of a good leader is the ability to nurture a pool of able would-be successors. The idea of “a crown prince” is wrong and dangerous, as we saw with Anwar Ibrahim.

To get things done, a leader needs capable subordinates and great followers. Before one can be a good leader, one must first be a good follower (not ahli bodek [yes man])). Was Mahathir a good follower? Examine what he did to the Tunku and Tun Hussein Onn. That is something I learned in management and from James McGregor Burn’s excellent book on leadership. Leadership is critical for success in business and politics. A good leader must have a grasp for details, not just vision. Overall, Mahathir was a good leader.

I cannot believe that a strong leader like Mahathir cares what UMNO wants or thinks. He always had his way, by fair means or otherwise. For him to say that Badawi is what UMNO wants is a little far-fetched. Like Nehru, Mahathir did not develop people under him. He made all the decisions; he did not empower his ministers and party colleagues. He had zero tolerance for “smart fellas.” He never had time for you, Bakri, or me, or anyone with views of their own.

UMNO needs to be strong and always relevant. It must have a built-in system of self-renewal and an organized machinery (cadre system if you like). It must stick to its tradition of listening to, and respecting the grassroots. Otherwise, Malay sovereignty and control over national politics and public administration will be lost. We must not lose our premier position in national politics.

The democratic system is essentially adversarial. It is a battle of ideas and programs aimed at delivering maximum happiness to the Malays. This should always be UMNO’s first concern; then comes the other Malaysians. If UMNO is careless and complacent, PAS and its allies can take over.

UMNO needs strong, able and dedicated leaders, not corrupt ones. That is why we must get rid of money politics, and all forms of corruption. Today, as you never fail to remind me, UMNO is corrupt to the core. God help us, the Malays, if UMNO does not reform itself soon.

UMNO leaders have forgotten their original struggle. Leaders like Najib (he is corrupt, so I am told, and with a greedy wife to boot!) who talks about Melayu glokal are out of touch. We cannot even compete locally with non-Malays. How can we go global and compete with the rest of the world?

Amanat Presiden (President’s Address) over the years contained plenty of platitudes, gushes of hot air, free flowing rhetoric, and irrelevant foreign policy pronouncements. Ordinary Malays cannot relate to them in any meaningful way. UMNO should re-look at the content of its Amanat Presiden. It should be a report card, practical, and simple. Focus on things that are achievable within the context of the overall vision and plan. Be modest and down-to-earth. The General Assembly is the only time when the party President has the chance to speak to the grassroots.

I am not sure that Badawi is aware of his weaknesses. His sycophants tell him that he is great, wise, and a Yang Amat Berhormat, and they kiss his hands. He is the proverbial Emperor with no clothes. He has only his “imagined reality,” and his advisors keep him isolated. Intellectually too, he is isolated as he does not read widely.

He thinks that running a country is simply reading speeches, inspecting Guards of Honor, and making official visits abroad and at home. To put it crassly, he has an attitude problem. You said it well when you wrote about The Sultan Syndrome in your The Malay Dilemma Revisited. Malaysia already has an Agung and nearly a dozen sultans. It does not need another one.

To be a leader one needs mental strength, a set of unshakable beliefs, plenty of guts, and mastery of details. A leader must lead and not be concerned with being a populist. He must do what is right, not what is popular.

In the end, he must have the character and integrity to say what he means and means what he says. Meaning, he must execute.

Fortunately, I am not a member of any political party. It is great to be just the man in the street.

Sallam,
Din.