Archive for the ‘Malaysia Today’ Category

Letter To A Young Malay Professional

Sunday, August 19th, 2007

Letter To A Young Malay Professional

Co-written with Din Merican

(First posted on on August 13, 2007)

Dear Khairul:

We are touched that you feel comfortable asking us for advice, considering that we have not met you except virtually through this wonderful medium of the Internet.  Yes, modern technology is bringing the world together, reducing distance to irrelevance.

We congratulate you on your MBA.  It is undoubtedly a major milestone in your life journey, besides being your entry into the world of business.  The analytical and other skills you have learned are applicable beyond the field of management.  Management after all is concerned with getting things done through people, and about leadership.

You are also now well prepared to benefit from your future experiences.  Experience is a great teacher, but only to those well prepared, otherwise you risk drawing the wrong lessons.  As that great surgeon William Mayo of Mayo Clinic fame observed, some surgeons repeat the same mistake a hundred times and call that experience.  Ask their patients what they think of that!

We applaud you for another reason.  You had the humility and wisdom to recognize early that your bachelor’s degree was just the beginning and not the end of your intellectual journey.  Far too many feel otherwise; they presume to know everything upon getting that parchment paper.  They stop learning.  A presumptuous few even feel that they could lead a billion-dollar corporation or advise the prime minister just because they received their first degree from a prestigious university.  Then there is preening graduate who mistook his in-laws’ adoration as an endorsement to lead the nation!

Our culture contributes much to these inflated expectations.  We generously refer to a leader with only a first degree as an “Islamic scholar.”  Never mind that he has nothing original to his credit.  Another with a general degree from a provincial university is proudly touted as a “British-trained economist.”  There is not even a trace of embarrassment with that extravagant assertion.  Our culture is generous to a fault!

It may surprise you that one measure of quality for American universities is the percentage of their graduates who go on to graduate and professional schools.  Your professors have imbued in you the right values by your furthering your studies.  You are ahead of many of your compatriots, even those from august institutions who somehow missed being educated during their undergraduate years.


Awesome Responsibility of Advising

We are uncomfortable with dispensing personal advice; the burden of responsibility weighs heavily on us.  Once when one of us was advising his nieces and nephews, his mother gently admonished them, “Do not listen too much to your uncle, you may end up marrying a foreigner and leaving the country!”

While we may be shy in giving you personal advice, we are not at all hesitant in recollecting our experiences, the paths we had chosen, and the choices we have made in the hope that they might be useful to you.  Both of us have similar aspirations and perspectives for our people and country.  We are comfortable with where we are.  We may not have nor do we aspire for the trappings of success normally associated with our culture.  In relating our experiences, that is our caveat for you.

Both of us are of the same generation and gone through similar experiences growing up.  Our paths diverged dramatically only in adulthood.  Din hails from rural Yan, Kedah, and lived for many years in Alor Setar before proceeding to Penang Free School.  His detractors refer to him derisively as a mamak.  Bakri is still at heart the kampong boy from the royal town of Sri Menanti, Negri Sembilan, base of the matrimonial adat perpateh society.  That gives special meaning to the term “kampong.”  It is less a geographic description, more a state of mind, as in “plebian.”  Thus in addressing members of the royalty, we refer to ourselves as “Patek hamba!” (Slaves).

Din attended the University of Malaya in the early 1960s.  It was a reflection of the caliber of that institution at the time that when he went for his MBA in Washington, DC, he excelled.  He returned and worked for such outstanding personalities as Tun Ghazalie Shafie at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tun Ismail Ali at Bank Negara and later, Sime Darby, the eminent economist Agoes Salim of Bank Pertanian, Tun Mahathir when he was at FIMA, Tun Tan Siew Sin (Sime Darby), and Indonesia’s dynamic entrepreneur Aburizal Bakrie and his top manager Tanri Abeng.

Bakri went to Canada and became a surgeon.  After a stint in private practice there, he yearned for something more than having a dog, station wagon, and a house in the suburb, and decided to return.  However, after nearly three years in the service of the Malaysian government, he discovered that he had fewer headaches when he stopped banging his head against the bureaucratic wall.  So he left.

That brief description does not do justice to Bakri’s tenure in Malaysia.  It was his most satisfying experience professionally, in part for the privilege of having participated in training some of the nation’s future eminent doctors and surgeons.  Bakri also remembers fondly Tan Sri Majid Ismail, the pioneering orthopedic surgeon and later, legendary Director-General.  Unfortunately, Tan Sri retired soon after Bakri came aboard.  Earlier while Bakri was still in Canada, the late Ungku Omar who was then Dean of Medicine at UKM, encouraged Bakri to pursue research.  Sadly Ungku Omar died before Bakri returned.  His career might have taken a different path had he came back sooner.  However, we do not speculate on paths not pursued.

Our commonality is our outstanding mentors early in our careers.  They set the bar high, and quickly shaped our personal values and work culture.  Luck played a role, but we also chose to be under such exemplary individuals.

We chose carefully for another reason.  We did not feel that we could influence much less change the surroundings so early in our careers.  We never underestimated the inertia of the status quo.  Once we had some solid experiences, only then did we become assertive.  Where we could not change, or if we felt we were compromising ourselves too much by staying, we did not hesitate to leave.


Choose Carefully

Be prudent in your early career choice.  Join a multinational corporation, and your talent and hard work would be nurtured and well rewarded.  Pick the civil service, and you would quickly acquire the bodek culture, the obnoxious habit of “sucking up” to your superiors.  Be active in UMNO Youth, and soon you would be adept at racial taunting and obscenely brandishing your keris.

We see too many bright and idealistic young Malays who are intent on changing UMNO only to be changed by it instead.  To us, that is a tragedy; to them, an advancement.

We look in dismay at many young Malay professionals rushing to climb the administrative ladder at the expense of their professional development.  When Bakri taught young surgeons he insisted that they first concentrated on polishing their surgical skills and publishing a few papers before being distracted by rapid administrative promotions.  Once they took on administrative chores they would be literally consumed by the bureaucracy.

Politics is another great seducer of young Malay talent.  We look askance at one neurosurgeon, still a rarity for our community, readily giving up his hard-earned career for opposition politics!

            It is praiseworthy that our brightest and talented aspire to lead the nation.  However, before they contemplate that, they should first prove themselves by excelling in their chosen profession or enterprise.  Anything less and they would be disrespecting their fellow citizens.

We tell our adult children that they would have to create for their employers at least twice their salary in the value of work:  one half to cover their pay and the other half for other overhead.  Anything less and you would be a burden to your employer, or, as kampong folks would say, makan gaji buta (lit. Eating a blind salary).  In our faith, that would also be haram.

No one can guarantee you your job security; only your clients and customers can do that.  Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony) notwithstanding, the world does not owe you a living; our leaders are misleading our young to have them think otherwise.  There is no substitute for competence, integrity, and hard work.

Finally, you can make a difference.  The individuals Din and Bakri served were driven by their strong conviction that they could make a difference.  And they did.  There were also individuals of exceptional competence and uncompromising integrity whose personal examples spoke louder then their words.  They demonstrated best the leadership ideals of our prophet, s.a.w.,:  quadrat hasanah (leadership through personal example).

            Again, congratulations on your MBA, and best wishes in your chosen career.

M. Bakri Musa and Din Merican

August 2007

(Din Merican is a senior research fellow with the Cambodian Institute of Cooperation and Peace. He was recently named an adjunct professor of global business strategy and a board member of the newly formed University of Cambodia , Phnom Penh. Din Merican had worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bank Negara Malaysia and Sime Darby.)

Fraud and Incompetent (Penipu dan Pembodoh)

Monday, July 2nd, 2007 June 25, 2007

After nearly four years as Prime Minister, I have difficulty deciding whether Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s leadership is a fraud (penipu) or simply incompetent (pembodoh). My quandary arises from my initial mistaken assumption that the two would be mutually exclusive when in fact that with Abdullah, they are not. His leadership is both.

The circumstances of his recent wedding serve both as an example of as well as a metaphor for his leadership. First there was his communications director hauling the country’s editors and commanding them on what and what not to report. True to pattern, like little good schoolboys and girls, they all obeyed. Their subsequent copies were replicas of the official announcement, down to the punctuation marks. Oh well, these editors do get to choose the fonts and discretion in paragraphing!

That reflects Abdullah’s respect for the media and the concept of the freedom of the press. Frankly, those editors deserve what they get.

Second, Abdullah wanted his wedding to be a simple private affair (he is entitled to it), yet the event grabbed headlines in Malaysia as well as regionally. Even the couple’s visit to Abdullah’s late wife’s gravesite, which should have been an intensely private and highly emotional moment, was widely publicized. This was a public relations exercise to portray the image of a man still devoted to his late spouse.

If Abdullah had genuinely wanted his wedding to be private, then he was terribly inept and downright incompetent in executing his wishes. He could not even make UMNO-controlled New Straits Times not to accept those nauseating bodek advertisements. A better and surer way would have been to have the akad nikah privately, and only then made it public. By announcing it ahead of time, Abdullah practically ensured that his wedding would be anything but private.

Alternatively, had Abdullah wanted his wedding to be widely publicized, then his initial request for privacy was nothing more than a cynically coy ploy to ensure just that. It is a variant of the lady (or in this case the groom) doth protest too much. That being the case, he is guilty of perpetrating a contemptuous fraud on and mockingly manipulating citizens’ emotions.

What should the public and the world to make of this charade? Indeed charade has been the defining trait of Abdullah’s leadership, whether in his much publicized but ineffective fight against corruption or in overhauling the civil service. The man simply tak tau buat kerja (does not know his job).

It would not surprise me if Abdullah were to announce general elections soon to exploit the personal “good vibes” generated from his wedding. He is shrewdly counting on the warm afterglow of the wedding to cover the blotches of his leadership.

Already toadying academics and commentators have opined that Abdullah’s popularity has “soared” following the wedding. Presumably they all have conducted their own private polls. Some boldly declared that Abdullah would now be invigorated as a leader as he would a man. Sadly, marriage will not magically transform an ineffectual leader. There is as yet no viagra for weak leadership.

That notwithstanding, Malaysians will again vote for his party. Again he and his advisors will delude themselves into thinking that as a rousing endorsement of his leadership when in fact it would merely be a choice of the least unacceptable. If there were to be a choice of “None of the above” on the ballot, it would be the overwhelming pick of voters.

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Facts From Fantasy, Rumors From Reality

In 1971, Pierre Trudeau, then Canada’s most eligible bachelor as well as its charismatic Prime Minister, stunned everyone with his secret weekend wedding to Margaret Sinclair, 28 years younger. His aides thought he was off skiing while her family thought it was going to be a formal family portrait session! It was her only way to make them dress up without having to reveal the real reason.

Besides being charismatic, Trudeau was also a brilliant and competent leader. He knew how to get his way, both in running the country as well as in protecting his privacy. He went on to become Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister at a time when the country was threatened by a dangerous split between English- and French-Canadians.

Alas, Abdullah is no Trudeau. Malaysia is today dangerously polarized along racial and religious lines. Abdullah’s incompetent leadership contributes to the deepening of this split. His penipu allows him to continue perpetrating hoaxes on the citizens; his pemdodoh insulates him from contemplating the dangerous consequences.

Abdullah’s crudest and most consequential hoax is his Islam Hadhari. As Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., reminded us in his last sermon, the verities of our faith are both eternal and universal, for all times and for all mankind. There is no need to add a modifier to Islam. Abdullah fraudulently leads Malaysians to believe that banning books and locking people up without due process is compatible with his Islam Hadhari.

If only he had spent more time implementing the ideals of his Islam Hadhari and less on spouting them endlessly, he would do a lot more good for himself and the nation. Not to mention in enhancing the image of the faith. Islam Hadhari succeeded only in polarizing Muslims and dividing Malaysians, a reality obvious to all except Abdullah.

His earlier blatant public denial of his relationship with Jeanne Danker is illustrative. I could not care less of his denying details of their private life, except to state that his denial merely illustrates his inability or unwillingness to discern facts from fantasy, and rumors from reality. Such cognitive dissonance would ordinarily disturb one’s mental equilibrium; Abdullah however takes it all in with equanimity. Only a simpleton or a congenital liar could do it with the ease of Abdullah.

He did not have to lie; he could have just kept quiet, as he had done on numerous other occasions. Now that the truth is out, what are we to make of his earlier denial? To me, that was yet another demonstration of his contempt for the citizens. He does not take them into his confidence. A liar does not trust others, thinking that everyone else is like he is.

Abdullah is a leader who would unashamedly lie to citizens as when he self-righteously declared that his son did not benefit from any government contract. When confronted with the facts, he clarified without even blinking an eye that he was not personally aware of the truth. A leader reveling in his own ignorance!

When Raja Petra exposed the government’s purchase of an ultra luxurious corporate jet to the tune of over RM200 million for his use, Abdullah again boldly denied the allegation. When confronted with the facts, he again denied the reality. It was not the government that bought the plane, he allowed, rather a private government-owned entity that purchased it, a semantic clarification that would make a Philadelphia lawyer proud.

He makes a mockery of his inaugural address as UMNO President. Then, with all the pretensions of an undiscovered poet, he declared, “Aku cari bukan harta bertimbun-timbun/Untuk hidup kaya/Aku cari bukan wang berjuta-juta/Untuk hidup bergaya.” (I seek no material wealth or riches. I seek neither millions nor a luxuriant lifestyle.) All talk, no walk!

Abdullah’s leadership (if it could be called thus) is nothing but a shadow play, a sandiwara, one that has no plot, no theme, and unmercifully, without an ending in sight.

Fool Me Once, Shame On You; Fool Me Twice, Shame On Me!

Contrary to the above Chinese proverb, Malaysians are not suckers for Abdullah’s many lies. The citizens have long ago seen through and are resigned to them. The real suckers are those who believed wholeheartedly in the man, in particular his ministers, UMNO Supreme Council members, and leaders of Barisan Nasional component parties. They wholeheartedly swallow what Abdullah regurgitates. To them, what comes out of him is not vomit but predigested food, as a mother vulture to her hungry and rapacious brood. They eagerly lap it up!

When Abdullah pens his poem, they would all imitate him, even if that meant blatantly plagiarizing someone else’s creation. After all, if they readily believe lies to be truth, the word plagiarism cannot be in their collective vocabulary.

We now know that those “heartfelt” congratulatory messages, even the canned ones, were not even sent personally by those “sucking up” ministers. Even they delegated that to their assistants!

As for Abdullah’s supposedly bright young advisors on the Fourth Floor, they are too green to realize that Abdullah’s chronic lying and fraudulent acts will ultimately reflect upon them. As for their intelligence, they cannot be too bright if by now they have not realized that their master is both a fraud and incompetent.

The last laugh is on them, and the hardly know it!

Integrative Thinking Mark of Great Leadership

Sunday, June 24th, 2007

Integrative Thinking Mark Of Great Leadership

M. Bakri Musa, June 18, 2007

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review,* Roger Martin, Dean of the University of Toronto School of Management, observed that successful leaders have the ability to hold two opposing ideas simultaneously, and then craft a solution based on the synthesis of both, instead of either/or.  Malaysian leaders, political and religious, would do well to learn this.

            Martin compared the human mind to the human thumb.  An opposable thumb (able to apply force in opposing directions as well as opposable to the fingers) enables humans to do such intricate handiworks as drawing, writing, and sculpturing.  It is also handy if not a necessity for a surgeon.  Likewise, an opposable mind would enable leaders to think creatively instead of being trapped in a dichotomous or binary thinking of yes or no, and either/or.  More importantly, this capacity for “integrative thinking” can be taught.  It is the intellectual underpinning of Toronto’s fast-rising Management school.

Limitations of Binary Thinking

Many monumental problems can be traced to a leader’s inability to escape the trap of binary thinking.  The earliest and most consequential split among Muslims was between those who believed that the leadership of the ummah (to succeed Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.) should be restricted to his bloodline, versus those who subscribed to the prophet’s command, “The best among you shall lead.”  Thus we have the Shiites, the followers of Ali (the prophet’s nephew), and the Sunnis.  Muslims and the world generally are still paying a terrible price as a consequence of that conventional thinking.

Had those earlier leaders been exercising their integrative thinking faculties, they could have come up with a solution along this line.  Have the spiritual leadership of Islam be restricted to the Prophet’s descendents while the political leadership be to “the best among you.”  We have the model of hereditary sultans and elected prime ministers.  Perversely today, the only Shiites to adhere to the descendants-of-the-prophet-only-as-leader are the Ismailis.  Mainstream Shiites have long ago abandoned that precept.

President Bush is today trapped in conventional thinking when he views the world as “either with us or against us.”  As exemplified by Abu Gharaib and Guantanamo, atrocious behaviors are not limited only to “them.”

Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman exhibited best this integrative thinking.  Instead of choosing between the two racial extremes of championing Tanah Melayu (Land of the Malays) versus the thinly-veiled but equally racist thinking of what would later be subsumed under the “Malaysia for Malaysians” banner, he chose a course synthesizing both elements.  Thus he opted for Malaysia instead of Tanah Melayu or Melayu Raya (Greater Malay) and relaxed the citizenship rules for non-Malays while retaining enough Malay attributes (the sultans, Malay language) to satisfy Malay sensitivities.  That stroke of political genius spared the country the tragic fate that befell the Balkans, Rwanda, and Northern Ireland.

The Tunku’s political genius did not percolate to today’s leaders; they are still trapped in their binary thinking.  To them, learning English means neglecting Malay, while encouraging the study of English would ipso facto be detrimental to Malay language.  Similarly, special privileges for Bumiputras must automatically mean suppression and discrimination of non-Bumiputras.  This zero-sum mentality, the consequent of binary thinking, is not only non-productive but also destructive.

With integrative thinking, these problems would look very different, and their solutions more fruitful.  Learning English literature in college stimulated and enhanced my appreciation of Malay literature.  The celebrated Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer would not have been the great writer that he was had he limited himself only to Malay literature.  Pram studied such great writers as Steinbeck and Hemingway, and translated their works.  He became a better writer, and the Malay literary world is enriched with his translated as well as original works.

Munshi Abdullah would not have been the astute observer of Malay society and culture had he not been exposed to the British colonialists.  He did not view the colonialists as all evil; likewise Pendita Zaaba would not have produced his defining works on Malay language had he not studied English grammar.

Yet today we have too many myopic Malay leaders and scholars unable to escape the confines of their traditional thinking.  They are disdainful of Malays who wish to learn English.

Similarly, programs to assist Bumiputras should also indirectly help non-Bumiputras.  Non-Bumiputra businesses would benefit more when Bumiputras are economically well off than when they are poor and marginalized.  Executing programs under the NEP more efficiently and minimizing their leakages through corruption would go a long way towards minimizing non-Bumiputra resentments.

            The good news is that we can learn integrative thinking.  On visiting Singapore, Deng Xiaoping was astounded by the republic’s economic achievements.  He was even more impressed when he considered that those Singapore Chinese were not descendents of the elite mandarin class (they chose to stay comfortably back home), rather of coolies and other dregs of China who could not make it back home and thus were forced to emigrate.

            Deng rightly concluded that Singapore’s success had less to do with some mysterious and supposedly superior Asian (read: Chinese) values, as its leaders are wont to brag ad nauseam, rather to their embrace of free enterprise.

Instead of being hobbled in having to choose between capitalism and communism, which many thought were the only alternatives, Deng opted for a synthesis of the two.  Hence his “communism with Chinese characteristics.”  Russian leaders on the other hand, trapped in their conventional mindset, went headlong to latch onto capitalism without fully understanding it or having the necessary supportive institutions in place first.  Consequently, Russia gives capitalism a bad name (at least initially) while China is a thriving capitalist society in all but name.

            Deng learned integrative thinking informally; Martin teaches it to his MBA students formally in his lecture halls.  He identifies four necessary steps to integrative thinking.  First is identifying the key issues in a problem, what he calls salience, and then analyzing their links, specifically their causality, fully aware that these relationships may not necessarily be one-to-one or even linear.  Third would be to outline the architecture of the various elements and their relationships.  Last would be the resolution phase when we refrain from the either/or mentality and instead seek a synthesis by incorporating the best elements from each.

            We all implicitly recognize that there are good and bad elements with any position.  The challenge is to incorporate the good and eliminate the bad.

            I have unconsciously applied integrative thinking to the many dilemmas in my life.  Today I have difficulty identifying myself belonging to any particular mahdab (school of jurisprudence) of Islam.  Through the freedom afforded me in the West, I am able to explore the vast and varied richness of our Islamic traditions, from the Ahmadiyyahs to the Ismailis and Wahhabis.  In each I have found elements that appeal to and are useful for me.

            The Ahmaddiyyahs’ emphasis on social services in particular education is relevant and appealing.  From the Wahhabis I learn to value the anchoring stability of traditions and rituals.  The Ismailis teach me a richer and deeper meaning of emulating our Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.  Of all Muslims, they best exemplify the prophet’s commitment to seeking knowledge and serving your fellow humans.

            The current obsession with Malay-Muslims on whether they are Muslims first or Malaysians is both puerile and divisive.  Malays are Muslims and Malaysians simultaneously; the two are not mutually exclusive.  It is not an either/or proposition, rather a synthesis of the two.  If you were a good Muslim, you would be a good Malaysian, and vice versa.  We all assume multiple identities simultaneously:  a teacher as well as being a student; a father and a son; a leader and a follower.  In my masjid, I am the follower and the Imam the leader.  When he is in the hospital, I am the leader and he, the follower.

            Martin’s integrative thinking has long been the staple of experienced physicians.  It is instructive that while he is teaching future business leaders this useful skill, medical educators are perversely moving away from it.  Today, doctors grapple with mandated algorithms, diagnostic trees, and treatment protocols, all under the guise of “evidence-based medicine.”  These do nothing but force physicians into binary thinking, and of assuming an either/or mindset, to the detriment of their patients.

            Many of the problems in Malaysia and the world would be better managed if we could escape our conventional thinking and opt for the integrative one.  Conventional thinking handicaps us by making us view the world as “us” versus “them,” while integrative thinking helps make us see it more as “we.”  In this increasingly globalized world, that is an imperative.

            That notwithstanding conventional thinking is still appropriate and adequate when the problems are discrete and well defined.  Even complex problems are made more readily solvable by breaking them up into discrete components and thinking conventionally.  In short, as per Martin’s thesis, the choice between conventional and integrative thinking it is not an either/or proposition rather a synthesis of the two.

          Roger Martin:  How Successful Leaders Think.  Harvard Business Review, June 2007.

Our Crumbling Civil Service

Sunday, June 3rd, 2007

Our Crumbling Civil Service

M. Bakri Musa and Din Merican

MalaysiaToday May 30, 2007

Prime Minister Abdullah’s announcement of a pay raise for civil servants, in the midst of the furor over water leaks and collapsed ceilings at spanking new government buildings, brings to the fore once again the angst on the state of the Malaysian civil service.

The civil service specifically and our public institutions generally are fast losing their effectiveness through the twin blights of corruption and incompetence.  This is the critical challenge facing the nation.  Unfortunately, the Prime Minister refuses to acknowledge or is unable to comprehend this reality.  He is content with mouthing endless exhortations:  “Be more efficient!”  “Do not be corrupt!” “Be global in outlook!”

This is vintage Abdullah, as his contemporaries in the civil service would attest, accustomed to his countless hours in such sembang (empty talks) back at the old Federal House building in the 1960s.

Abdullah’s leadership, like our institutions, is blighted by incompetence and corruption.  Only a few months ago Abdullah was bemoaning the Little Napoleons in the civil service.  Then the service was a convenient scapegoat for the inadequacies of his policies.  Today he claims these civil servants deserve a pay hike.  Talk about mixed signals!

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Bloat Is Not The Only Problem

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            By whatever measure (relative to the economy, population, state of development, or compared to similar nations), our civil service is definitely bloated.  That presents its own problems, quite apart from the substantial burden it imposes on the country.  The only thing worse than a bloated civil service is one that is also corrupt and incompetent.  And that unfortunately is what Malaysia has.

The optimal size of government varies with different countries, dependent upon among others, the culture and state of development.  Thus simplistically comparing the civil servant-to-population ratios or size of government relative to the economy would be meaningless.  Even more problematic is that the very definition of public service varies.  Physicians do the same work everywhere; in America they are mostly in the private sector, in Malaysia, civil service.

When there is no government (or an ineffective one), there would be chaos and no meaningful development, economic and others.  That is the curse of many African countries.  Likewise when the government is huge and all-powerful, it smothers the citizens, reducing them to wards of the state.  The result would be also economic stagnation, as exemplified by the old Soviet system.  The American Presidential candidate of the 1960s, Barry Goldwater, rightly observed that a government that is big enough to give you all you want is big enough to take it all away.

This negative consequence of too little or too much government is encapsulated in the wisdom of the Armey curve, first articulated by the American economist turned politician, Richard Armey.

It is not the size of the government however, that is important, rather what it does with that size and power.  Governments in Canada and Scandinavia consume a much larger share of the economy, yet their citizens are very happy.  Those governments use their power and resources to provide preschool for every child, protect the environment, and guarantee universal healthcare for their citizens.  The Malaysian government uses its considerable power and size to monitoring what citizens are reading, intimidating its critics, and competing against citizens in the marketplace.

Visit a Canadian National Park and compare it to our Taman Negara; that would be a concrete and readily comprehensible example of an effective government.  If our civil servants were consumed less with moral cleansing by snooping around catching people in khalwat and instead pick up the rubbish in our parks and rivers, then there would be fewer complaints and more sympathy for the salary hikes.

If ministers responsible for education were to focus only on improving our schools and universities instead of busy trying to appear as champions of our race, language, and other extraneous issues, then we would need only one instead of three ministers.  We could then double his or her salary, and it would still be cheaper on the nation.  It would also be more efficient.

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Insidious Problem

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To be fair, the deterioration of the civil service predated Abdullah.  The shift away from an independent, apolitical and impartial institution began under Mahathir.  He appointed the less-than-capable Ahmad Sarji as Chief Secretary to do his (Mahathir’s) bidding.  That however is now history.  The consequence is that today the civil service is reduced to nothing more than an instrument of UMNO.

            Abdullah perpetuated and aggravated the trend by bringing in his own cabal of wet-behind-the-ears outside advisers, most notably his son-in-law and Kallimullah Hassan.  Abdullah squandered his massive electoral mandate in not improving the civil service.

            With time and lack of remedial actions, the problems in the civil service compounded and gained momentum.  Now the rot is obvious and has reached the very core; solving it would be much more complicated.

            Consider corruption.  We do not need Transparency International to tell us that the problem is entrenched.  The leaking roof is only the most visible manifestation of corruption’s toll.  An encounter with the traffic police or customs officer will bring that reality to a very personal level.

It reflects Abdullah’s naivety that he believes raising salaries would solve the problem of corruption.  On the contrary, that would only make it worse.  Whereas before a RM 50 note would satisfy the traffic cop, today he or she would sniff at it, demanding a bigger loot to match his or her now higher expectations.

There can only be two reasons for increasing salaries:  to reward increased productivity and to attract talent. The civil service fails on both counts.  There is no shortage of applicants for government jobs.  As for productivity, visit any government department.

One would think that with the glut of applicants, the government would get the best talent.  Far from it!  The qualification for entry into the administrative service remains the same, any university degree.  One would have thought that the government would tighten the standards and insist that candidates demonstrate competency in English and mathematics.  Today our diplomats can hardly express themselves or understand the quantitative aspects of high finance, yet we trust them to negotiate complicated trade treaties and international agreements!

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Impact on the Malay Labor Market

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Either by design or through default, the civil service is primarily a Malay institution.  As the largest employer of Malays, it has a disproportionate and unhealthy impact on the dynamics of the Malay labor market.  Young Malays respond not to market forces but to the demands of the civil service.  The world may demand skills in science, technology, and English, but as long as the civil service does not emphasize or need those skills, young Malays would have little incentive to acquire them.

As Malays have a fascination for the civil service, it could potentially play a pivotal role in influencing the development of Malay talent.  If the government were to mandate that all civil servants be fluent in English (as well as Malay, of course), science literate, and have mathematical skills, it would automatically encourage young Malays to pursue those subjects.

We recommend going further and require that all applicants for government jobs have at least three years of private sector experience.  That would ensure the government gets the best applicants.  Those Malays who aspire for the civil service would have to first prepare themselves for the private sector, meaning they would have to learn English and be mathematically competent.

Imagine the improved quality of our civil servants if they have had some private sector experience and marketplace exposure.  For one, they would be more responsive to the needs of their customers, the public.  For another, they would not be insulated from everyday realities.

The public disgust against the recent salary hikes for civil servants reflects a general dissatisfaction on the quality of our government.  The public is not getting the quality of services for all the money expended.  Improve the quality, and the public would not begrudge the raises.

What A Contrast In Leadership!

Sunday, May 27th, 2007

What A Contrast In Leadership!

First posted on, May 20, 2007

It is the mark of great leaders that they are able to read their followers well, and then to inspire them by appealing to their better side.  Raja Nazrin Shah, the Raja Muda of Perak, is not yet a sultan, yet he has excelled on both counts.

            His recent royal wedding to Zara Salim Davidson was elegant in its simplicity, and dignified by its moderation.  Simplicity and moderation did not make the ceremony any less regal; on the contrary, they enhanced it.  We were, for instance, thankfully spared the all too-common debasing of our fine cultural tradition of the mas kahwin and wang hantaran (dowries) into a crass exchange of cold cash.

            In a culture where the elite has difficulty differentiating between the public treasury and private coffer, the prince’s declining to accept public funding for his wedding is unprecedented.

             The fact that he is receiving widespread praises and adulations reflects the underlying silent disgust Malaysians have for the rampant and obscenely ostentatious displays of wealth that is fast becoming the norm among our elite.  Only our Malaysian politeness prevents the citizens from expressing their loathing for such vulgar displays and the assault on our collective sensibilities.  Unfortunately, our leaders mistake that to be tacit approval, if not explicit encouragement.  How wrong can they be!

A few months earlier, the Crown Prince gave a speech where he passionately declared, “Malaysians of all races, religions, and geographic locations need to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have a place under the Malaysian sun.”  He was specifically addressing young Malaysians, but his speech inspired all.  It was without doubt the most widely quoted address. That was remarkable.  It was as if Malaysians were yearning for their leaders to say something sensible, and at last they found one who did.

In style, tone and words, his speech was a refreshing contrast to the usual screaming, race taunting, and keris-wielding antics of those who have pretensions to be our next leaders.  While Raja Nazrin appeals to the finer qualities of our fellow citizens, these other leaders derive their strength by instigating their followers’ sinister side.  Raja Muda’s speech touched our hearts; these other leaders’ rhetoric chilled our spines.

Hereditary and Political Leaders

            The merit of democracy is that we get to choose our leaders, in contrast to a monarchy where the leadership in inherited.  With the choice and competition of democracy we should expect better quality leaders.  Yet in the person of Raja Nazrin we have a hereditary leader who is way above our elected political leaders.

            We could not attribute the difference to education.  At the risk of flattering UMNO Youth leaders like Hishamuddin and Khairy Jamaluddin by comparing them to the Raja Muda, consider this.  The pair attended top British universities, as did Raja Nazrin.  Khairy, for example, went to Oxford and came back to marry the prime minister’s daughter in lavish multiple ceremonies that dragged on for days.  There was nothing modest or simple about that wedding.  Raja Nazrin too was Oxford educated, but he opted for a modest uncomplicated ceremony, and asked that donations be given to charity in lieu of extravagant tributes and bodek advertisements in the media.

            Nor could we explain the difference to their upbringing or breeding.  Hishamuddin is the scion of a distinguished political family.  His grandfather, Datuk Onn Jaafar, was ahead of his generation in seeking integration among the races and the creation of a pluralistic vibrant Malaysian nation.  Onn resigned from UMNO’s Presidency over this very issue.  Hishamuddin’s father, Hussein Onn, was noted for his integrity and intolerance of corruption.  Despite intense opposition and at a considerable cost to his popularity, Hussein refused to block the prosecution for corruption of a popular senior UMNO figure.  Unfortunately, none of these sterling qualities filtered down to Hishamuddin.

Demonstrating Good And Upright Leadership

            In his speech, the Raja Muda emphasized that “good and upright leadership must be demonstrated.”  He was echoing the qadharat hassanah – leadership through personal example – of our Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w.

When the Raja Muda declared that he wanted a modest ceremony, he meant it.  He politely declined public funds and asked that the money be expended on the poor instead.  The royal wedding guests included students and orphans.  In so doing, he inspired others to do the same.

All too often our leaders are good only at spouting trite phrases.  “Work with me, not for me!” is an oft-repeated quote of Prime Minster Abdullah.  Yet when the citizens were in dire need, as during the massive Johore flood, he saw no need to cancel his scheduled overseas vacation.  He asked Malaysians to be frugal yet would not hesitate in buying a luxurious corporate jet at public expense for his use.  Never mind that no other Commonwealth Prime Minister has such a privilege.  He compares himself to the Saudi King and the United States President.  The humility and modesty of a modern Imam!

            When the Raja Muda said that political, social and economic incentives must reward good behavior and penalize bad, I wished our Prime Minister would listen.  Consider Klang Town Council member Zakaria Mat Deros and “Close One Eye” Melaka MP Muhammad Said.  Far from being punished, they are being rewarded, and rewarded handsomely.  That sends precisely the wrong message, and undercuts the Prime Minister’s very message (and campaign promise) of public integrity.

Encouraging the Raja Nazrins and Discouraging the Hishamuddins

The challenge for Malaysians is how to encourage the Raja Nazrins and dissuade the Hishamuddins among our leaders.  Picking our leaders based on their political or familial pedigree is not reliable, as demonstrated by Hishamuddin.  Sending future leaders to august universities like Oxford is no guarantee either.  As with Khairy, that would only feed their over-inflated ego and sense of competence.

Instead, what we should do is heed the advice of Razja Nazrin, that is, reward our leaders when they do good, and penalize them severely when they stray.  Our ultimate weapon as citizens in a democratic society is to grant or deny them our approval at election times.  Elections however come once every four or five years, and the election weapon is a crude one:  approve or reject.  There is no subtlety.

There is much that we can do in between elections to voice disapproval of our leaders.  The obvious is of course to let these leaders know when they do something we disapprove.  With the democratizing effect of the Internet, any citizen can now have a potentially powerful megaphone to reach as wide an audience as possible.  The worse that we could do is to justify their stupidities or be their apologists.  That would only encourage them.  If we do nothing but remain silent on the sidelines, our leaders would eagerly interpret that as approval.  They would then continue to act with impunity and become, in the words of my kampong folks, tak sedar ekor (lit. not knowing where his tail is; fig. get carried away).  Alternatively, when they do something worthy of our approval, we should be generous in our praises.

I read a deeper meaning to the Raja Muda’s refusal to accept public funding for his wedding.  He is a genuine prince, and his marriage is the product of true love.  Like us, he knows that the flattering public displays of devotions and tributes in those effusive newspaper advertisements are phony.  There was nothing generous in the Mentri Besar offering money that is not his to the prince.  Unlike our political leaders, The Raja Muda intuitively knew that the path to the citizens’ hearts is not to have them spend money on him but for him to spend money on the citizens.

As Raja Nazrin Shah and Zara Salim Davidson begin their life together, I join millions of others in wishing them many years of blissful marriage.  May they bring happiness to each other, and may Allah shower His Mercy and Blessings upon them.  May their example of charity, grace and moderation rub off on all of us – leaders and followers alike.

Get Out of The Student Loan Business!

Sunday, May 6th, 2007

Get Out of the Student Loan Business!

M. Bakri Musa

It is an astounding admission by the Public Services Department that about 10 percent of its over 100,000 student-loan borrowers have not paid a penny on their loans.  Some of the defaulters had completed their studies over 20 years ago.

            The government through MARA, JPA, and others has disbursed the colossal sum of over RM12 billion over the years.  Additionally, the GLC National Higher Education Fund (PTPTN – its Malay acronym) had given out nearly RM19.06 billion to 982,000 borrowers since its inception.  Even if those figures represented rupiah or pesos instead of ringgit, they would still be a huge sum.

            To say that the involved departments were inept and inefficient in their loan disbursements and collections would merely draw a yawn.  What else is new?

            The reality is that such activities as credit assessment and loan processing are alien to these civil servants; they are wholly unsuited by training and temperament.  Those activities properly belong to banks and financial institutions.  The only realistic solution to the government’s present mess would be to get out of the student loan business by privatizing it, and selling off the existing outstanding loans.


Privatizing Student Loans

            Giving loans for students to continue their education is good investment.  The rate of returns to the individual as well as to society more than justifies such investments.  Beneficial though student loans are, this does not mean that the government should be doing the actual lending.  Malaysia would do well to learn from the experiences of other countries.

            In America, the government is not directly involved in the student loan business.  Instead it merely provides the regulatory and administrative framework; the loans are given out and collected by participating banks and other lenders.  The government determines the maximum amount of loan for which the student would qualify (based in part on the family’s income), and caps the interest rates and other terms of the loans.  This in effect is an indirect subsidy.  There is also only one application form, thus simplifying and reducing the administrative costs.

The lenders are of course free to offer loans at more favorable rates and terms.  Many indeed do so because of the competitive marketplace pressures with students free to find the most favorable loans from the various participating lenders.

            The government does give out direct student loans (a program comparable to the Malaysian one), but that constitutes only a very small fraction of the program and applies only to the needy.  Likewise, students could bypass the government’s program and borrow directly from private banks and be subjected to the banks’ regular credit and lending criteria.  Private banks in Malaysia offer similar services.

            By getting out of the business of direct lending to the students, the government would substantially reduce its bureaucracy, quite apart from enhancing the efficiency of the program.  The loans would also be disbursed more quickly and the delinquent rates significantly reduced as banking professionals instead of civil servants would now be servicing the loans.

            The American program is not without its drawbacks.  The recent scandal where many college financial aid officials were indicted for receiving kickbacks from lending institutions in return for referring students attest to the fact that even a well laid out program can be subjected to abuse and corruption.

            Malaysia could improve on the Americans.  Instead of guaranteeing the full amount of the loan, the government could guarantee only a portion (80 percent) of it.  That would prod the banks to be more diligent in their collections as they would share the loss with the government.


Auction Off Existing Loans

            To complete the government’s withdrawal from the student loan business, I would recommend selling off all existing loans.  Package them in marketable quanta of RM1-200 million.  I would also group them based on geographic units, for example, loans taken out by students from East Malaysia or Klang Valley.  Other groupings could be based on where the students studied.  Thus student loans from those attending Australian universities would be packaged together and separately from those studying in United States or Britain.  This would encourage Australian, British and American banks to bid on these loans as they could use their vast domestic database to trace the borrowers.

There could be groupings based on the field of study.  Loans given to would-be doctors should fetch a premium price.  Those doctors would be easy to trace, and they are also likely to have a high income.

Selling these student loans would effect immediate savings in at least two ways:  one by dispensing with the current massive but ineffective bureaucracy, and two, by getting a fresh infusion of badly needed (albeit discounted) funds right away from the commercial buyers of these loans.

As with America, I would give these borrowers the option of forgiving their loans in whole or partially if they were to enter public service, provided of course their services and skills are needed.  I have in mind here especially the doctors and other professionals.


Income Contingent Repayment (ICR) Loans

An innovative scheme, the brainchild of the late Nobel laureate in Economics Milton Friedman, is the Income Contingent Repayment (ICR) loans.  Unlike traditional loans with their defined interest rates and amortization periods, borrowers would repay their ICR loans based on a percentage of their future income and for a specified period.

I propose 10 percent of the borrowers after-tax income for a duration double the loan period.  Thus if the loan was given out over four years, the student would have to pay 10 percent of his or her income for eight years after graduation.

If the student were to secure a lucrative job, he or she could end up paying considerably more.  Conversely if the student chooses a less well-paying but professionally more satisfying career like research or teaching, he or she would not be severely burdened.

Students would have to choose this option at the time the loan is being disbursed.  Yale had this kind of program.  It was doing so well that the financially successful borrowers were complaining that they were paying way beyond what they had borrowed.

This ICR scheme has an element of risk sharing associated with it; thus it should be more Sharia-compliant as compared to the traditional student loans with their fixed interest rates and repayment schedule.  Additionally, it might just encourage our young to opt for lower paying pubic service jobs like teaching.

The government’s present student loan scheme needs a major overhaul.  It is expensive, inefficient, and not serving the needs of the students or the nation.

The Lesson For Malaysia

Sunday, December 17th, 2006

The Lesson For Malaysia

[Note: The original version was posted on on December 17, 2006. I have expanded on that piece.]

The office of the President of the United States is the most powerful. The power, prestige, and influence wielded by its occupant are unmatched. Yet there was the remarkable event recently of a bipartisan committee of ten distinguished Americans publicly telling their President in no uncertain terms that his policy in Iraq was fatally flawed.

To me, this again demonstrates the beauty and genius of the American system. It is remarkable that rest of the world (except for Iraq, of course) does not appreciate the significance of this singular event. While Malaysian media covered in some details the recent American midterm elections, they hardly had a word on the Iraq Study Group and its Report.

Yet there is an important lesson or two here for Malaysia. One, even the most powerful leader can be subjected to scrutiny by the citizens at any time, not just at elections. Two, such criticisms even during times of war do not in any way undermine the power or prestige of that office. No American, not even the President who is the prime target of the criticism, is accusing the committee of undermining the war efforts in Iraq by their criticisms. Nor Bush did question the loyalty of the committee members or his other critics.

In mark contrast, there was Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi in his usual self-righteousness manner accusing those who criticized him as engaging in fitnah. This is an especially sinister exercise as that derogatory term is replete with profound religious implications. It is particularly offensive coming as it was from a self-professed “religious scholar” and “ulama.”

There was another remarkable aspect to the Iraq Study Group. It presented its report directly to President Bush in a face-to-face meeting on December 6, 2006 at 7AM. Rest assured that everyone was wide eyed and awake, especially the President, at that early morning meeting. Please take note of this, Mr. Prime Minister!

Before submitting its unanimous report, the Group had earlier “interviewed” (grilled is the more accurate word) the President and senior members of his team. The Group released its full report to the public on the day it was presented to the President. There was no hiding behind concerns on “national security” or “sensitive issue.”

The Relevant Lessons

Like many, I feel strongly that Malaysia is headed in the wrong direction. Our society is increasingly fragmented along racial, religious, and regional lines while our institutions are losing their integrity and effectiveness through the twin blights of corruption and incompetence.

Malaysians increasingly view themselves as “us” versus “them.” The “us” could be Malays and the “them,” non-Malays. For Malays, the “us” could be those who subscribe to the “pure” form of Islam, and the “them,” the misled. For the Chinese, the “us” could be those who have adapted to the Malaysian reality and proudly display their Tan Sris and Datuks, while the “them” are those who feel that the very survival of the great Chinese culture and language rests on their shoulders. For the Indians, the “us” could be those who have forsaken their “anak lelaki” or “anak perempuan” of their birth certificates for a “bin” or “binte” respectively, acquire an affected Kedah accent, and voila, suddenly become ardent defenders of Malay special privileges! The “them” are the rest.

Our national schools no longer attract a significant portion of our citizens, and our universities have failed to provide the necessary skilled manpower. Thousands of our graduates are unemployed, or more correctly, unemployable.

Economically, Malaysia no longer attracts foreign investments. Investors, local and foreign, perceive the nation as being increasingly corrupt. The recent demands by civil servants for a 40 percent pay hike reflect the increasing cost and declining standard of living.

Instead of being the engine that would propel our progress, the civil service is a major impediment. The only difference between lawbreakers and law enforcers is that the latter is on the government payroll. Otherwise they both extort and terrorize the public. As these public institutions are essentially Malay, they also bring shame and dishonor to our race.

Those are the realities, but we would not know that from the official pronouncements. That is to be expected; those in power do not willingly expose their mistakes and inadequacies.

The Surprising Elegant Silence of Many

What is surprising is the “elegant silence” of others. As I look at the roster of distinguished Malaysians now retired from academia, the professions, and public service, I am humbled by their integrity, intelligence, and contributions. I wonder how they feel seeing their fine legacies now being dismantled, and in many cases defiled.

Their silence is puzzling. If they feel that the nation is headed in the right direction and their legacies in good hands, they should voice their support. That would encourage the leaders to do more of the same. If they disagree, then they owe it to their fellow citizens to voice those concerns.

The only luminary who has spoken out is Tun Mahathir. The way the establishment has been treating him reveals volumes of its rigid “group think” and insular mindset. That Mahathir was defeated as a party delegate from his old constituency was a humiliation not for him but for those party members. If pearls had been cast unto them, they would have paved them onto their driveway of their palatial mansions, unable to discern those pearls from pebbles.

Regardless of the ultimate consequence of his criticisms, Mahathir has already made a seminal contribution. He effectively shattered the Malaysian taboo of criticizing the leaders. That can only be good for the nation. I am on record as being one of Mahathir’s severest critics even at the height of his popularity, but I salute him for this singular contribution. It is even more significant that he made it after he retired. For many, retirement means no longer contributing.

Loyalty means loyalty to the rule of law and to our institutions, not to individuals, no matter how high a position they occupy. Those ten distinguished Americans of the Iraq Study Group epitomize this fine tradition. Its Report is widely discussed and President Bush has already taking steps to respond on those recommendations.

The chief architect of the flawed Iraq policy has already resigned. We may disagree with Secretary Rumsfeld’s policies but there is no denying his personal integrity in resigning and taking responsibility. Contrast that to the behaviors of his Malaysian counterparts. Rafidah Aziz is still holding tight despite the Approved Permits scandal; like wise Sammy Vellu with the Highway Bypass collapse, and Syed Hamid over the imbroglio of the crooked bridge.

I look forward to similar contributions from our own corp of distinguished retired Malaysians along the lines of the Iraq Study Group. I am of course counting on the few who are not consumed with indulging their grandchildren, idling their time on the golf courses, or regaling their fellow mosque attendees.

Moon Sighting Revisited

Sunday, September 24th, 2006

Moon Sighting Revisited

This year, as in previous years, Muslims in America and elsewhere are again disagreeing over when Ramadan and Eid should begin. This year, also as in previous years, there will be renewed and earnest declarations to resolve once and for all this recurring issue.

The question is whether the new Muslim month (of particular relevance is Ramadan and Shawal) should begin when the new moon is sighted or go by scientific calculations.

A corollary controversy is over when to celebrate Eid ul Adha, whether to do it at the precise time the pilgrims are celebrating theirs in Mecca or to go by the equivalent local time.

Inherently Insolvable

This debate is endless because we fail to recognize that it is inherently not solvable. It is an arbitrary issue, like trying to agree to a point on a circle or a continuum.

There are only two possible ways of resolving it: through fiat by a central authority a la the Pope and the Catholics. Fortunately for Muslims, we do not have such a structure; that is our strength, not weakness. The issue must instead be resolved through communal consensus, in concert with the Quranic refrain that Allah will not let its community be in error.

For the community to make a wise, or to put it differently, the likely more correct decision, it must be informed on all the relevant factors. These can be conveniently grouped into three categories. One, we must learn from our predecessors on how they dealt with the matter over the last 1400 years. Two, we must be apprised of current scientific knowledge of not only in astronomy but also of human biology and other related disciplines. Three, we must anticipate, based on our past experiences and current conditions, the likely consequences of our decision. Once we have considered all the elements in their totality, then we are more likely to arrive at an informed if not wise decision.

Even then we must still have the humility to recognize that it is only our best collective judgment at the current time. Meaning, we should not hesitate to revisit it should conditions change.

The controversy over when the new month should begin is similar to determining when the new day should start. In the Western scheme of things, the new day begins at midnight; for Muslims, at sunset. Both are arbitrary selections. I am certain that there are other traditions now and in the past that begin their day at sunrise or even mid day.

Biologically, the human body is used to the morning being the beginning of the new day, in tune with our circadian rhythm. When we get to bed late past midnight, we worry about getting up early the next morning even though it would still be the same day. When we get up at 7 AM we feel fresh and ready for a new day, even though it is already nearly a third of the way into the Western day and halfway through with the Muslim day.

Our psychological perception may change if we were to become nocturnal like bats. Our new day would then begin at sunset, the Muslim new day. With global warming and the days becoming unbearably hot, we may yet come to that!

Learning From Our Predecessors

This is where our scholars and ulama contribute greatly. They are well versed with the Quran and the ancient texts, as well as the sunnahs of our prophet s.a.w. In deciphering them, it is well to heed the caution of our luminary Al Arabi, “All that is left to us by tradition is mere words. It is upon us to find out what they mean.”

As Muslims we accept the message of the Quran as universal, for all mankind and at all times. That is a matter of faith. We must first however discern what that message is. We must have the wisdom to put texts in their contexts, and to distinguish the literal from the metaphorical. Most of all we must have the humility to acknowledge that all knowledge begins with Him, and only He knows the ultimate truth. For us mortals, the search for knowledge and the truth is never ending.

To quote the Egyptian intellectual Taha Hussein, “The end will begin when seekers of knowledge become satisfied with their own achievement.”

Lessons From Science

The birth of the new moon can be reliably predicted through calculations and from past observations. That is the valuable contributions of astronomy. To science, the “new” moon (conjunction) is when it passes between the earth and the sun. At that particular moment, the moon is completely within the earth’s shadow and thus cannot be seen from earth. The new moon will become visible as it slowly emerges from the shadow.

There is the inescapable time lag between when the new moon is born and when it can be visually sighted (hillel). It would vary with atmospheric conditions, seasons (summer or winter), locations (southern or northern hemisphere, sea level or top of the Rockies), weather (hence the science of meteorology), and visual acuity (hence the science of human optics), among others.

Even the science of language plays a role, in particular the definition of “local” community. In a country like Canada that spans six time zones, the new moon may not be sighted at sunset in Newfoundland, but will become obvious at sunset in Vancouver five hours later. By the time the new moon would be sighted at 11 PM at Whitehorse, people in St. Johns would have already started their new morning and be too late to begin their fast.

Similarly, when the new moon cannot possibly be sighted in the northern but can in the southern hemisphere, how should countries like Indonesia that spans the equator handle the issue? There cannot be a right or wrong decision, only a communal one. We delude only ourselves if we think otherwise.

The same confusion occurs with celebrating Eid ul Adha. If we were to follow tradition of celebrating at the same time of the pilgrims in Mecca, as many would insist, it would mean that some communities would celebrate at midnight.

Consequences Of Our Decision

A useful aid in making decisions would be to do a “downstream analysis.” Assume that we have made a certain conclusion, what would be the consequences, fully aware that we cannot always anticipate everything, and that the laws of unintended consequences are always operative.

If we stick to tradition, we keep alive our rituals, and with that, our link to our rich heritage. We could make the moon sighting into a festive event, another opportunity for communal bonding. In Arizona, astronomy buffs have regular celestial sighting parties. It can be a deeply moving and highly spiritual experience to ponder the vast cosmos in the silence of the evening.

The negative would be the current uncertainty and chaos, with some community celebrating Eid on one day while members of an adjacent one would still be fasting. What would that say about our respect for our festive Eid to be fasting on that day, not to mention of Muslim unity?

The uncertainty carries a significant price tag. Facilities have to be rented on two successive days just to be sure, doubling the cost. If we opt for the predictable scientific method, we would be spared the extra expense. Imagine what we could do for the poor with the money saved!
If we could have the day fixed ahead of time, we are more likely to get official recognition of our holy days, and we would be able to plan properly.

The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Figh Council of North America are to be commended for attempting a consensus. However our Islamic Sharia Council of California does not support their decision. I would have preferred that ISNA and the Figh Council be more inclusive in their deliberations so bodies like our Shari Council could voice their arguments before the decision.

As ultimately this is a community decision, it is incumbent upon us to be informed of the issues and communicate to our leaders our sentiments. This essay is my contribution at both.

Have a Blessed Ramadan!

Undur lah, Pak Lah!

Sunday, September 3rd, 2006

Undur lah, Pak Lah
(Step Down, Pak Lah!)

Few images could match the pathos of a man struggling to keep his head above water as he is drowning. A more tragic scene would be seeing a Mongoloid child quietly slipping underwater, oblivious of the mortal danger he is in as he sinks down, grinning. No intimations of fear or helplessness; a few moments later he would be found lifeless at the bottom of the pond.

This is the image Prime Minister Abdullah currently projects, and it is not far from the reality. He is way above his head, and is blissfully unaware of it. He still maintains the “elegant silence” of a Pak Bisu (the lovable deaf-mute uncle), and a “What? Me Worry?” grin of Mad Magazine’s Alfred Neuman.

He is sinking fast, and he does not know it. He is also taking his party and the nation down with him. Unfortunately, it is not within our culture for those closest to him to warn him of the impending disaster, much less to rescue the poor soul. On the contrary, they would continue to shield him from the harsh reality, all the way down to the bottom of the pond. They are more interested in protecting their own interests rather than in saving the man or the nation.

Undur lah, Pak Lah! Step down, Pak Lah! Spare your party, race and the nation you love needless grief.

It would be presumptuous of me to suggest that you might also be sparing yourself, your loved ones, and those closest to you. That is not for me to say.

Right Decision; Right Timing; Right Reason

By stepping down now, Abdullah would be making the one right decision at the right time and for all the right reasons, something that has sorely eluded him since becoming Prime Minister.

This would be an appropriate time for him to announce his resignation, to be effective following the election of a new leader at UMNO’s forthcoming annual convention in November. Doing so now would spare his party and the nation the endless distractions of a leadership tussle. With Ramadan coming up, there will be only a few weeks for the members to focus on electing their leader. The restraining influence of that holy month would curtail the more blatant “money politics” that has plagued UMNO. That would help ensure a clean election; at least I hope so.

Were Abdullah to reveal his stubborn streak and hang on however tenuously, rest assured that the party and nation would be consumed by the leadership brawl. Forget about the Ninth Malaysia Plan, economic growth, or even plain normalcy. Even if Abdullah were to survive (a very big “if”), it would be a hollow victory. He, the party, Malays, and Malaysia would have been senselessly and irreparably battered in the process.

Clinging on would only make him look even more pathetic and helpless than he is already now. Please spare us the sorry sight!

I trust the collective wisdom of UMNO members to select Abdullah’s worthy successor. They have been through the exercise many times before. When Datuk Onn left the party in a huff, sulking because the members would not do his bidding, they demonstrated great judgment in picking the hitherto unknown and colorless civil servant, Tunku Abdul Rahman. It was a prescient choice for later he would lead the nation to Merdeka. In contrast, the daring, brilliant and charismatic Datuk Onn was content to remain in the false security of the colonial cocoon.

Similarly later when the Tunku was enjoying himself too much in being the “world’s happiest Prime Minister” while the nation was fracturing, UMNO members again asserted themselves. That famous genuflecting letter to Tunku from Dr. Mahathir may be from one person, but not its sentiment.

Granted, the UMNO of today is a far cry from its earlier being; it is now corrupted to its core. The rot accelerated when Anwar Ibrahim introduced the party and its members to “modern” forms of campaigning, as with “money politics.” It was only through outright corruption and blatant bribery, condoned by the party’s senior leaders, was Anwar successful in dislodging Ghaffar Baba as Deputy President and thus, Deputy Prime Minister. However, as we Muslims would observe, Allah has His Ways; nothing happens without His Will.

Today money politics is entrenched; it seems futile to have faith in UMNO’s ability to make wise decisions, uncorrupted by money and influence peddling. Examine the last leadership convention, and that was with the two top positions not contested. Imagine the ugly tussles and ensuing gross corruptions had both positions been vacant.

There is some reason to hope that this time it would be different, if Abdullah were to resign now. With the restraining influence of Ramadan and Hari Raya, as well as the short notice, there would not be a prolonged disruptive and acrimonious campaign. There would be corresponding less time for intrigue and bribery. It takes time to form alliances and to engage in backstabbing.

This may well be the only opportunity for the party to have a relatively honest election, and for its members to express freely their collective wisdom. This may also be the only chance the party has to cleanse its leadership, and thus itself.

If Abdullah does not seize this rare opportunity and instead succumb to the flatteries of his courtiers, rest assured that the party and nation would needlessly be distracted until he is out. Not a pretty prospect, for him, the party, and the nation.

Contrary to Abdullah’s perception, Mahathir is not the problem; silencing him would not be the solution. Mahathir is getting wide hearing not because he is the former Prime Minister (although that is a factor), rather the issues he raises resonate with the citizens.

Undoing Mahathir’s Legacy

If Abdullah were intent on undoing Mahathir’s legacy, as Abdullah’s many interlocutors seemed to convey, then stepping down now would do it. He would have effectively broken UMNO’s ill-advised “tradition” of not contesting the two top positions. This presumes that Najib would contest the top slot with Abdullah’s withdrawal, and thus automatically vacate his Deputy President post. There is nothing to indicate that he would not do so.

It was just over two years ago that Abdullah received an overwhelming mandate from the people. He has not committed any egregious deeds, which would be the usual reason in calling for a resignation. On the contrary, he has done a few things right; that is to say, I agree with those decisions.

That is precisely Abdullah’s problem. Even when he did the rare right thing, as with trimming the budget deficit, canceling that silly crooked bridge, and reducing the petroleum subsidy, his timing was off and or his reasoning flawed.

It was pathetic and painful to see his ministers and other defenders going through contortions to justify canceling that bridge. As for the timing, the penalty payments may yet exceed the cost had the boondoggle been built!

As for Abdullah’s overwhelming mandate of 2004, do not read too much into it. Malaysians are by nature generous and forgiving of our leaders, at least the first time around. When Tunku took over from the towering Datuk Onn, Tunku’s Alliance Party won all but one of the 52 seats. Datuk Onn scrapped through with the only one seat.

This was not because Malaysians were mudah lupa (easily forgetting) or being ungrateful to Datuk Onn for his great service in establishing UMNO and saving the nation from becoming a dominion. Rather, Malaysians prefer giving their new leaders a rousing start and a generous chance.

Resigning the prime ministership is quite the tradition in Malaysia. Chalk one up for the nation! Tunku did it temporarily to concentrate running his campaign in1959. A decade later the Tunku missed the subtle Malay signals and was more or less forced out, albeit civilly and with decorum in 1970. Hussein did it gracefully in 1981, without prompting, when he found himself overwhelmed.

Fast-forward to today, Hussein Onn is fondly remembered despite his forgettable tenure. In contrast, during the recent celebration of Merdeka’s 49th anniversary, few recalled the Tunku’s pivotal leadership in that fateful event.

Mahathir made it clear that he now deeply regrets anointing Abdullah as his successor. That point is irrelevant. By resigning now and simultaneously opening up the nomination process by letting anyone to participate by doing away with the onerous branch nomination requirements, Abdullah would reduce the corrupting influence of money politics and help ensure getting the best candidates. Let the membership decide who are serious and who are frivolous candidates. By resigning now, Abdullah would also ensure that the next generation of leaders would truly be the choice of the membership. That is a legacy that even Mahathir could not match. That is also the one enduring legacy worth leaving.

Undur lah, Pak Lah!

Ending Subsidies and Changing Behaviors

Sunday, May 21st, 2006

The recent public outcry against reducing the petroleum subsidy underscores the difficulty in changing established patterns of behavior. If we have problems with a 30-sen per gallon reduction in subsidy, imagine how formidable the opposition would be to removing other major subsidies, like special privileges. Those who call for dispensing with NEP “crutches” would do well to heed this caution.

For a study in contrast, gasoline prices tripled in the last few years in America, yet there was no protest. Nor were there any discernible changes in the behaviors of the public. Gas-guzzling cars still sell, the highways are perpetually jammed, and buses and trains remain empty.

If we believe in basic economic assumptions, such increases in price should result in concomitant reduction in demand. That it does not, reflects the difficulty in changing habits and attitudes.

Changing Human Behavior

This does not mean that human behavior cannot be changed; it can, often quickly and dramatically.

The Arab oil embargo of the 1970s precipitated widespread changes in the collective behaviors of Americans. Thermostats were turned down in winter and up in summer, motor homes remained unsold, and people took to wearing sweaters. Four cylinder cars, hitherto a rarity, suddenly became popular. Highway travel was reduced, and people drove slower to conserve gasoline. An unanticipated benefit was the dramatic drop in highway fatalities.

The Japanese occupation of Malaysia also precipitated seismic changes in behaviors and attitudes. For one, it shattered the myth of the White Man’s superiority.

There were other mundane changes. As portrayed in the movie A Town Like Alice, those “mems” hitherto used to having their every need tended to found that they too could scrounge barefooted in the villages with the natives in order to survive. My father, who had difficulty learning the much easier English language, found that he could speak Japanese and write kanji in a matter of months! The Japanese had a ruthless – and very effective – teaching technique: Learn, or you will be punished, and punished severely.

Ending Subsidies

There is a useful lesson here for those who bravely talk of ending the NEP “crutches” and other subsidies.

Take oil subsidy. If the objective is to stem the hemorrhage from Treasury, it would be wise to have slow incremental reductions. They would more likely be taken in stride, as the Americans demonstrate. If the objective is to wean off the cheap-oil lifestyle, then you would need “shock” treatment akin to the oil embargo.

Assuming the first objective, a 10-sen increase every few months would eliminate the subsidy in a few years while allowing for consumers to adjust. To cushion the impact on the poor, subsidize their season’s bus and train tickets, and hand out coupons redeemable for cooking gas. Additionally, reduce the tax or give tax credits for taxi owners and bus operators.

Regardless of the objectives, it certainly would not be wise politically and economically to reduce the subsidy and simultaneously announce a massive bailout for Malaysia Airlines.

Shock Therapy to End Subsidy Mentality

Ending the subsidy mentality among Bumiputras would involve major cultural and behavioral changes, thus requiring “shock” strategy. The objective here is less with reducing public expenditures (though that would be a significant side benefit) and more to changing societal and citizens’ attitudes and values.

A gradualist approach would not work, it would let people adjust and outsmart the system. Never underestimate human ingenuity to overcome obstacles.

Clinically, shock treatment is used for treating depression and in aversion therapy; in the hands of amateurs, it could kill.

Socially, if “shock therapy” were indiscriminately and unskillfully applied to end special privileges, there would be riots. The nation would be ripped part from the turmoil, negating whatever potential benefits that could be gained. Skillfully applied however, it could be socially and economically transforming.

One strategy would be to “shock” only the segment of society that could bear the pain most, and whose behavioral and attitudinal changes would influence the rest.

Imagine if henceforth Bumiputras who earned or have assets beyond a certain value were denied special privileges. The criterion should be such that the group would include members the royal family, ministers, members of parliament, business tycoons, professionals, and senior civil servants.

Consider the immediate positive effects. Knowing that their children would not get scholarships and other special treatment, they would now curtail their ostentatious lifestyles and save more. This would add to capital formation in the Bumiputra community, with the consequent positive economic impact. With the rich now off the public trough, more resources could then be diverted to the truly needy.

Similarly, instead of having ministers and politicians decide who would be blessed with timber concessions, Approved Permits for importing cars, and other valuable licenses, auction them off to the highest bidders, and use the proceeds to improve rural schools.

Likewise with the award of public tenders; there would now be competitive biddings to involve not only non-Bumiputra companies but also foreign ones. Bumiputra companies would then have to strive very hard to be competitive. Their principals would have to pay more attention to their businesses and less time lobbying politicians. The government would also realize immense savings, spared from paying the unnecessarily bloated costs as with the present practice.

On another level, the next time a vacancy occurs at the highest echelon of the civil service, public universities, and Government-linked companies, if the government were to use a reputable “head hunting” firm to recruit widely (including abroad) for a replacement, imagine the shock waves that would thunder through the establishment! That would be far more effective than the endless exhortations of gemilang, terbilang and cemerlang (excellence, glory and distinction).

Yes, there would be a political backlash from those grown gluttonous on the present system. However, the many more poor Bumiputras who would benefit from the changes would easily outvote the deprived rich ones!

Imagine the transforming effect to such a selective shock therapy. All Bumiputras would now strive hard to be competitive and less dependent on the state. The results would only be good, for Bumiputras as well as for Malaysia.