Archive for the ‘Malaysiakini 2006’ Category

Bringing Back English Schools

Sunday, August 5th, 2007

[First posted under SEEING IT MY WAY  in  August 2, 2007]

I fully support the call by the Tanjong Malim UMNO Division to bring back English schools.  This is one quick and effective way to increase the English proficiency of our students, especially those in rural areas.  It would also better prepare them for our increasingly competitive globalized world.

            It is significant that this UMNO division should be making this resolution.  Tanjong Malim is home to Sultan Idris Training College(now a university), long the hotbed of Malay nationalism and breeding ground for ardent advocates of Malay language.

The Division would have these schools teach in English all subjects except Malay language.  It would however, be a great mistake simply to bring back those English schools of yore.  While they served the nation well then, such schools would be totally inappropriate in today’s socio-political reality.  Such schools would unnecessarily provoke backlash

For one, the curriculum had little local relevance.  For another, while those schools were good at imparting English language skills on our young, it was at the expense of our national language.  What we need instead are schools that would make our students effectively bilingual in Malay and English, and have a curriculum that would emphasize science and mathematics while using teaching materials and subject matters relevant to the students’ every day life and surroundings.

In the old English schools we learned more about the beauty of the English Lakeside district in springtime through Wordsworth’s poems but remained woefully ignorant of the enchantment and utility of our own mangrove swamps, or the bountiful biodiversity of our vibrant rainforests.

Brought up under the old English school I admit to being ill informed about our talented writers like Hamka and Shahnon Ahmad, as well as poets like Chairil Anwar and Usman Awang.  Fortunately – and this may seem perverse – because of my Western liberal education and exposure to the humanities and liberal arts, I developed an appreciation of our own native literature later in life.  Only then did I feel the void of my earlier education.

These are the mistakes we must avoid in our enthusiasm in bringing back English schools.

English Schools only in Rural Areas

There is a huge gap between good ideas and their successful implementations.  Failure to appreciate this important caveat dooms many good ideas and policies.  It would then make their subsequent resurrection that much more difficult.  Thus it is important to proceed carefully, with precise planning and effective execution in order to minimize the risk of failure.

In my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I proposed setting up English schools initially only in rural areas.  With the high background of Malay proficiency, it would be unlikely for the students to “forget” their native tongue as it is widely and regularly used at home and in the community.  Besides, the need for greater English proficiency is most acute with our rural students.

If English schools were to be set up in the cities where the national language is not widely and regularly used, there is the danger of our students not being proficient in Malay.  Were it to happen, there would then be another and more severe backlash from the language nationalists.

While these schools would be located in rural areas, they should be open to all.  Urban parents who wish to enroll their children in such schools should be allowed to do so.  We would then have a situation that is the reverse of colonial times.  At that time rural parents who wished their children to attend English schools had to fork out additional expenses for transportation, extra costs they could hardly afford.

Having English schools in rural areas would not unduly burden those city parents who wish to enroll their children, as these more affluent parents could afford the added costs of transporting their children.  Being generally better educated, they would also demand more from these rural English schools and their teachers.  That would ensure quality education.

English No Panacea

English proficiency alone is not enough; India and the Philippines would disabuse us of such a misguided notion.  While these two countries emphasize English, their schools and students are not worthy of our emulation; nor for that matter their economy or leadership.

In addition to bringing back English schools, what is also needed is a curriculum that emphasizes the sciences and quantitative skills, as well as critical thinking.  Using English as the medium of instruction would facilitate the acquisition of these skills and knowledge.

English is now the de facto language of science and technology.  There is no way for our scientists and students to keep abreast in these fields by depending only on translations.  The rapid expansion of knowledge is such that even if the entire intellectual endeavors of Malays were devoted solely to translating, that would still be inadequate.

The teaching of science is important not only for the acquisition of the specific knowledge and skills but also for mastering the scientific method, an approach to solving problems that has proven effective and productive.  The remarkable advances of the West in the last couple of centuries are attributable to their adoption of science and technology, together with the accompanying mindset.

For Malay students, the teaching of Islamic Studies in English would go a long way towards modernizing our approach to that important subject.  Currently, Islamic Studies is being taught in Malay or Arabic, using archaic pedagogical techniques and assumptions more suitable for ancient Bedouins.  The emphasis is more on rote memory and blind adherence to traditions and rituals.  This philosophy of teaching has long been proven less effective through the insights of modern psychology of learning and child development.

If Islamic Studies were taught in English, our students could be exposed to more modern texts.  Increasingly these are written in English; it is now the most important language in Islam, next to Arabic.

I see many merits to bringing back English schools, suitably modified to meet our times and needs.  While the Tanjong Malim Division may encounter huge obstacles in having their resolution adopted nationally, the much greater challenge is to ensure that the policy, if adopted, be imaginatively and effectively executed.

Old Versus New (Promised) Malaysia

Sunday, July 8th, 2007

SEEING IT MY WAY  June 28, 2007

Two school events, both widely reported, took place last week.  One was the Speech Day at Malay College Kuala Kangsar, and the other, the graduation exercise at Kolej Yayasan UEM.  The difference in the two events serves as a good metaphor distinguishing the old Malaysia from what I hope is the promise of a new one.

            The ceremony at Kuala Kangsar was graced by no less than the King, the Raja Muda of Perak (the school’s Governing Board Chair), and the Minister of Education.  You could not get a more distinguished company of visitors than that.  Meanwhile KYUEM had such nondescript corporate figures as UEM Chairman Ahmad Tajuddin Ali and its Foundation Trustee, Sheriff Kassim, in attendance.

            At Malay College’s Speech Day, there was no mention of the achievements of the graduating students, specifically which great universities they would be attending.  There was a reason for this noticeable absence.  None of the students qualified for university admission directly.  They would first have to go to a “finishing school” elsewhere.

The headmaster at KYUEM proudly announced that 11 of his 183 graduates would be heading for either Oxford or Cambridge.  In the preceding year, a fourth of his students secured admissions to Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College, and London School of Economics, an achievement any British grammar school would be very proud of.  In the area where it counts, in fact the only valid currency for a school – the quality of its graduates – KYUEM easily trumps the venerable MCKK.

It is revealing that the item that received the biggest applause (according to a news report) was the King’s announcement that the minister had approved a new hall for MCKK!  In his speech, the King suggested that other schools emulate MCKK.  I respectfully suggest to His Majesty that Malay College should instead emulate KYUEM.

The Old Malay of MCKK

MCKK, established over 100 years ago, had pretensions of being the “Eton of the East.”  It is formal, resistant to change, and slavishly hanging on to “traditions.”  Even the school motto is in affected Latin, Fiat Sapienta Virtus.  Query the school’s alumni, students and teachers; few would know what it means.  In short, Malay College epitomizes the old Malay ethos, obsessed with symbols and pretensions but devoid of substance.

KYUEM on the other hand is less than a decade old.  Its mission statement, or motto if you will, is elegant in its simplicity and clarity, “To Educate, Not Simply Teach.”  No pompous Latin phrases.  And they – trustees, teachers, and students – have done an excellent job at it.  They embody the good and the promise of a new Malaysia.  Specifically, those Malays at KYUEM are my model of Melayu Baru (New Malay).

Before elucidating further the differences between MCKK and KYUEM, it is important to note that despite their “college” labels, both institutions are basically residential secondary schools.  In case of Malay College, it is not even that.  Since its graduates cannot enter university directly, MCKK is essentially a glorified middle school.

The foremost difference is that MCKK is a public institution, totally dependent on the allocations from the ministry.  Despite its roster of luminaries as “old boys,” their contributions to the school are miniscule to nonexistent.  The only time they visit their alma mater is to harass the headmaster for decisions they do not like.

KYUEM is a private institution, dependent on tuition and donations for its survival.  As such, it has to produce to satisfy its customers – students and their parents.  The school is not interested how many sultans, ministers and other luminaries it counts among its alumni rather which universities will accept its students next year.  Malay College is fixated with its past, Kolej UEM is confidently poised for the future.

Malay College is an all-Malay institution; KYUEM’s student body reflects the rich diversity of Malaysian society.  Malay College students would carry their cultural insularity into their adult life.  KYUEM’s students on the other hand have a much richer and more meaningful learning and living environment because of the diversified enrollment.  They would definitely be better prepared for this globalized world.


Examine the Leadership

While everyone in an organization contributes to its success, the crucial differentiating point is leadership.  KYUEM trustees are from the business world, individuals attuned to recognizing a need in society and then fulfilling it.  In contrast, the Minister of Education appoints MCKK’s governing board.  They are thus men with the mindset that there is no problem that a government cannot solve.  The sinister corollary to this is that the government must control everything; it knows what is best for you and me, and our children.

Consequently, MCKK’s curriculum follows that the ministry’s rigid prescription, right down to the textbooks.  KYUEM opted for global standards and chose the best traditions of British grammar schools.  When there are no locals with sufficient experience with such a system, the trustees do not hesitate in hiring an expatriate.  They do not have any negative lingering anti-colonial hang ups, or fear that the hiring of a foreigner would be viewed as a slight on the abilities of the natives.  Those trustees are interested only in what is best for their students.

KYUEM’s outgoing headmaster, Richard Small, is an Oxford graduate; his successor, John Horsfall, is a product of Cambridge and a PhD-holder to boot.  I gleaned these facts from the news reports of the graduation exercise.  In contrast, at Malay College’s Speech Day there was no mention of who was the headmaster.  That was the degree of respect the headmaster commanded, or was accorded.  The King and the other distinguished visitors hogged the limelight.  They were obviously more important than the headmaster, teachers, or students.

I am certain that the MCKK’s headmaster must glow in having the King, Raja Muda and the Minister grace his school’s function.  Richard Small on the hand could hardly contain his pride in his students’ achievements.  How revealing of the different priorities at the two institutions!

Leadership alone is not enough.  The students do not see the trustees and headmaster every day in the classrooms.  It is the teachers who are there for the students.  “The most important learner in the classroom,” noted Headmaster Small, “is the teacher, because if the teacher is not constantly learning and changing, how can he be a competent role model for student learners.”

The caliber of the faculty at KYUEM is impressive, many with graduate degrees including PhDs.  Its biology teacher, Norhayati Zainudin, is a graduate in Veterinary Medicine from a local university.

Impressive degrees mean nothing if the teacher cannot teach.  My biology teacher at Malay College had a PhD from a Punjabi university.  He was next to useless.  Fortunately, my physics and chemistry teachers in the persons of Mr. Malhotra and Mr. Norton more than took up the slack in teaching and guiding us.

Readers might be puzzled to know where I garner these facts about KYUEM.  Easy, from its website (  It has a wealth of information useful not only for potential students but also for web visitors like me.

I tried to surf Malay College’s website.  The operative word there is “tried.”  There are many such sites claiming to be the “official” website, many hosted by “freebie” servers and consequently cluttered with advertising banners.  On one site, its “Students Achievements” page was last updated in 1999!

Malay College is embarking on its “Sayong Project,” billed to take it into the new century.  MCKK is also eagerly seeking ties with residential schools in other countries.  I humbly suggest that MCKK looked closer to home, just a few miles south at Lembah Beringin.

Malay College epitomizes the feudal Malay system still very much alive under the veneer of modernity.  Meanwhile those folks at Lembah Beringin represent the new Malaysia, confident of their heritage and at ease with the modern world.

New Pathways To University

Sunday, June 17th, 2007

SEEING IT MY WAY June 5, 2007

M. Bakri Musa

New Pathways To University

Editorial lead:  Input equals utput – Malaysian universities need better-prepared students if they are to turn out quality graduates.

            We cannot solve the current sorry quality of our local graduates by focusing only on the universities.  Among others, we must address the basic issue of how we prepare our students for college.

            At present Malaysia uses internal matriculating examinations, matrikulasi (for Bumiputras) and the Sijil Tinggi Persekutuan.  As our graduates would eventually have to compete globally, we should use internationally accepted examinations to prepare and select future undergraduates.

            There are three highly regarded and widely accepted such examinations:  British GCE “A” level, American AP (Advanced Placement), and the International Baccalaureate (IB).  The GCE “A” level is rigorous but suffers from being too narrow.  The IB combines breadth with depth.  The US National Academy of Science rates the IB and AP as the two best programs in preparing students to pursue college-level science.  AP is of such quality that if you score well, even Harvard and Stanford would grant you college credits.

            Despite its recent vintage, IB has received worldwide acceptance very quickly.  More and more American high schools, not just the exclusive private “prep academies,” are offering the program.

Of interest, students from inner city schools that offer IB respond to the rigorous academic demands, demolishing many negative stereotypes.  There is a lesson here for Malaysia.  There is widespread perception that anything associated with Malays generally and MARA specifically is tainted with mediocrity.  Yet the MARA Junior College in Banting, which until recently was the only school in the country to offer IB, achieved remarkable success.  A while back it held the best performance worldwide for two consecutive years.

Despite that evident success, MARA and the government were slow to expand that program.  MARA’s Seremban junior college began offering IB only in 2005.  So far it is the only other government school offering IB.  Malay College, the nation’s oldest residential school, is also toying with the idea.  Despite its Chairman of the Board Raja Nazrin vigorously championing it, thus far it is still only an idea, reflecting the power of inertia in Malaysia.

Vices and Virtues of Democratizing Higher Education

A remarkable development since the 1960s is the democratization of higher education.  The assumption is that every student, not just the select few, should be given the opportunity to pursue higher education.  Universities would no longer the elitist institutions they once were.

America was the leader in this movement.  Later, even rigidly class-conscious Britain joined in.  The phenomenal economic achievements of America in recent decades are largely attributed to its highly educated workforce.  Over 60 percent of its high school graduates go on to pursue higher education.  Of these, slightly over two thirds (or 44 percent of all high school graduates) enroll in degree-granting four-year institutions, and the rest in community (two-year diploma-granting) colleges.

Other countries including Malaysia began following America’s example in expanding their universities.  For Malaysia however, the consequences are less positive.  Far from enhancing the overall quality of our workforce, these universities dilute it.  There is erosion of the quality of its previously highly regarded University of Malaya, with resources and talent diluted to other campuses.  Worse, these mushrooming institutions contribute to the already unhealthy obsession with paper qualifications – “credentialism.”

Not all nations joined the bandwagon of higher education for the masses.  Switzerland still maintains a highly selective university system, admitting only 15-20 percent of its high school graduates, with another 30 percent pursuing diploma and vocational programs.  Switzerland’s economy is even more productive than America’s.

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The Pertinent Lessons From America

When universities admit the top 30-40 percent of high school graduates instead of only the top 10, there is bound to be the inevitable dilution of quality.  America solves this quality versus quantity dilemma by stratifying its universities.  Yes, the admission requirements for all universities are the same (a high school diploma).  On the other hand, the quality of students admitted to Harvard is vastly different from those going to Podunk State University; likewise the academic programs.  The freshman calculus class at MIT is very different from that at the local state university.

The issue is not that there is a vast gap between the top and lower rank universities – that is acknowledged and accepted – rather that each institution serves the nation well in its own way.  Podunk State produces the local teachers and engineers while Harvard graduates would go on to professional and graduate schools or join the large firms.

Granted, the economics taught at Podunk State may not be as rigorous as at Harvard, nonetheless those students at Podunk State are better for having attended that institution then not going to college at all.

Malaysia is attempting similar stratification of its universities, designating a few as research universities.  This is a positive step.  I would go further and clarify the criteria for such a designation.  Apart from research capability, I would include breath of undergraduate offerings, presence of professional schools (law, medicine), and graduate students comprising at least 25 percent of the enrolment.  Universities that do not meet these criteria would be termed university colleges, comparable to the American liberal arts colleges.

This classification implies no statement as to quality.  Some of America’s best liberal arts colleges (Reed, Williams, Swarthmore) have academic and market reputations far superior to many research universities.

California has distinct and explicit stratification.  The research-oriented University of California system with its nine campuses enroll the top 12 percent of students, while the 23-campus California State University (CSU) system enroll the top 33.  CSU offers only limited Master’s programs and no professional degrees.  The community colleges admit anyone with a high school diploma.  Those clear demarcations notwithstanding, there are well-delineated pathways so students could transfer from one stream to the other.

The important difference is that unlike in Malaysia, the individual campuses select their own students and staff.  The central office merely does the administrative coordination so students would not be burdened with filing multiple applications.  In Malaysia, the bureaucrats at the ministry do the hiring of lecturers and selecting of students.

As with the universities, there is similar stratification of schools, as well as within schools.  Not all schools offer AP or IB programs.  When they do, only a fraction of their students (those academically capable and sufficiently motivated) would enroll in the program.  There is no point in enrolling students in the rigorous IB program if their career aspirations do not go beyond being a nurse, clerk, or elementary school teacher.  It would not serve the student, school, or nation.  On the other hand, if the students were to aspire for admission to Harvard or Stanford, then they better enroll and excel in a few AP courses.

We could begin with our residential schools.  As they admit the top 5 percent of our students, these schools should dispense with the ministry’s regular curriculum and examinations.  Instead their students should be geared to international standards and follow the GCE, AP or IB curriculum.  Even if they do not end up at the world’s top universities or opt for local ones, these institutions would be the better with the presence of these highly qualified and well prepared students.

Our best students should be pitted against the world’s best.  Anything less and we would be doing them and our nation a great disservice.

Pak Lah! Worry About the Rakyats’ Rice Bowl Instead

Sunday, December 24th, 2006

Happy Holidays and Season’s Greetings to you, your family and friends!

May yours be a joyous and safe one!

Bakri Musa

SEEING IT MY WAY, Malaysiakini Dec 21, 2006

Pak Lah, Worry About the Rakyats’ Rice Bowl Instead

Co-written with Din Merican

Editorial lead: This is not the time to be nice to any individual. It is time to be nice to ALL Malaysians and worry about their pots of rice.

As he enters his fourth year as Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi still does not get it! He is concerned with his son-in-law’s pot of rice, not that of the rakyats’. Since he cannot brag about the nation’s economic achievements under his leadership, he is reduced to boasting of his son’s wealth. There is no glory if his son (and son-in-law) were rich but the nation poor.

Someone ought to tell him that he was elected to lead Malaysia, not to take care of the well being of his grown-up family, its friends and cronies. His advisers and family members have convinced him that those critics are out to bring him down. If Abdullah persists with his present pattern, rest assured that this belief would be self-fulfilling.

Abdullah should ponder the fate of another leader who was consumed with filling in the rice pots of his family members. Suharto’s downfall was ugly for him, as well as for his family and Indonesia.

Abdullah hides behind accusing his critics of fitnah, a particularly sinister term replete with profound religious implications. That is just a case of yet another rouge politician seeking subterfuge behind religion.

Being intellectually lazy, Abdullah conveniently cocoons himself and is thus shielded from the harsh realities. There he was a few months ago rationalizing that he was just “warming up!” Now he pronounces himself satisfied with his performance! It sure does not take much to make him satisfied, the smug satisfaction of low expectation.

The Curious Silence of Many

Abdullah is impervious to the plight of the poor devastated by his recent reduction of oil subsidy. The demands by civil servants for a 40 percent pay hike reflect the general increasing cost and declining standard of living.

Gone are his promises of open tenders and competitive biddings. Mega projects like the second Penang link and the new palace are being awarded without much discussion or formal tender processes. He has yet to deny disbursing RM600 million to UMNO operatives at the recent General Assembly, the most obscene and expensive display of money politics. Six months after the cancellation of the crooked bridge in Johore and there is still no full accounting of the total costs, including the hefty penalty payments. He spent hundreds of millions on the Monsoon Cup for a sporting event that hardly registered on the Malaysian consciousness.

The self-serving behaviors of his advisors ensconced on the infamous “fourth floor” of the Prime Minister’s Office are understandable; their very positions depend on their ability to humor the old man. As for his family members, there is the traditional Asian filial loyalty: the father being always right, the son (or son-in-law) always the prince. That will never change with Malays, Oxbridge education notwithstanding.

As for the others, there is the residuum of feudal Malay culture: the sultan is always right, challenge him at your peril. Classical Malay literature is replete with heroes presumed to be derhaka (and suffered the fate) for daring to correct the wayward ways of their sultans. Hang Tuah was only the most famous. Whatever the sultan wishes, he gets, and more. Increasingly, Abdullah is behaving like a pseudo sultan, minus of course the heritage or even regal charm.

It Takes More Than A Leader To Destroy A Nation

Thanks to the British colonial legacy, our nation is governed by laws and institutions. Those laws and institutions however, are premised on having competent and honorable leaders and individuals to serve them. With the corrupt and the incompetent, even the best laws would eventually be circumvented, and robust institutions eroded.

Abdullah alone could not destroy Malaysia; his lack of engagement is perversely an assurance of that. His lack of diligence and attention however could by default let others ruin the country. If that were to happen, the blame must then be equally borne by his advisors, ministers, and senior politicians, pundits, and public servants. They let it happen.

There are men of integrity in Abdullah’s cabinet (not many), but they have remained curiously silent. They are either putting their careers ahead of the fate of the nation, or they condone Abdullah’s shenanigans and incompetence. Or both. We look forlornly for a local Robin Cook or Paul O’Neill in Abdullah’s cabinet, men who willingly gave up their cabinet positions to impress their conviction on their wayward leader. More recently, a bipartisan group of distinguished retired Americans told their president publicly and in no uncertain terms that his Iraq policy is deeply flawed.

As UMNO President, Abdullah is answerable to its members. Judging from their collective behaviors at the party’s recent General Assembly, do not expect them to provide responsible checks and balances.

If ministers and UMNO members cannot provide the necessary oversight, then surely there is the UMNO Supreme Council. Their members, except for the few appointed by Abdullah and thus beholden to him, are elected by the membership. Thus we would expect them to be independent. Yet they too have remained curiously silent.

As we look at the roster of distinguished Malaysians who are now retired, we are humbled by their accomplishments and contributions in academia, the professions, and public service. They too are silent. If they agree with the direction the nation is headed, they should voice their support so as to encourage the leadership to do more of the same. If they disagree, then they owe it to their fellow citizens to voice their concerns. Surely the whole country has not suddenly been gripped by mediocrity and low expectations. We cannot find any other explanation for this curious but far from elegant silence.

An African proverb has it that it takes a village to raise a child. Likewise, it would take more than just a leader to destroy a country. Saddam could not ruin Iraq without those “enablers” around him. They too must bore the blame.

When reality strikes and Malaysians find ourselves in an abyss, yes, we will blame Abdullah. We must also pour our wrath on those others complicit: his ministers, pundits, and intellectuals now singing his praise. That ought to make them pause and examine their stance; to have the courage to impress upon Abdullah of this reality before voters deliver their verdict in the next general elections.

Abdullah’s self-admitted poor time management is not an acceptable excuse. His frequent and obvious inattention and dozing off should not be tolerated. If the burden of the office is too much for Abdullah, his advisors, ministers, and senior UMNO politicians owe it to the nation to tell the man to give it up and let others more capable take the helm.

This is not the time to be nice to any one individual; it is a time to be nice and considerate to all Malaysians and to worry about their pot of rice. To remain competitive, Malaysians, leaders and followers alike, must work hard and smart. Malaysia does not need nor should she tolerate sleepy heads.

Dealing with UMNO’s Childish Tantrums

Sunday, November 26th, 2006

Dealing With UMNO’s Childish Tantrums November 23, 2006

Editorial lead: Today, Umno is the problem, for Malays, non-Malays, and Malaysia. Umno has long ceased being part of the solution.

It is heartening that with few exceptions Malaysians have learned to ignore the ritualistic childish tantrums that are now the standard staple at UMNO’s gatherings. The recently concluded General Assembly was true to form, except for the chauvinistic chanting and virulence of the racism breaching even earlier heights of vulgarity.

Child psychologists tell us that the best way to deal with unacceptable behaviors is to indicate your disapproval in no uncertain terms the very first few times the child engages in them. This may include punishment.

If the child were to persist, then other strategies become necessary. Continued disapproval or punishment would be counterproductive, as the child would perceive that as getting attention. We would thus be unwittingly reinforcing the pattern.

This is where UMNO leaders are today. The more angry and ballistic the responses from Malaysians, the more encouraged these infantile Hang Tuah wannabes become. The censuring remarks of the likes of DAP’s Karpal Singh, Gerakan’s Lim King Yeik, and other commentators merely feed on these UMNO leaders’ hunger for attention.

Fortunately most Malaysians have learned to ignore these attention-seeking antics of UMNO. I had to force myself to view the videotapes of the General Assembly; I was bored after the first few keris-brandishing episodes. The only redeeming feature this time was that they did not drip their kerises with ketchup; they probably could not afford the
laundry bill the last time.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Najib Razak, then UMNO Youth Leader, was the first to exploit this now infamous keris-brandishing stunt a few years back. Despite his evident clumsiness, he did not accidentally stab himself. Had that mishap happened, that would have been the end to this obscene choreography, and also to Najib. It did not, and Najib went on to greater heights, in UMNO as well as the nation. So, monkey see, monkey do.

This year we had Hishamudin aping Najib. Next year, if things go as planned, it would be Khairy’s turn. Being an Oxford graduate, he would want to prove that he is better than Hishamudin by trying to upstage him. Expect Khairy to perform the silat or some other equally silly act with his keris brandishing. Being not athletically gifted, watch him fall flat on his face with his keris inflicting a career-ending injury. Such theatrics have to end on a dramatic note.

Were that to happen, it would not be good for Khairy, of course, but it will be for UMNO, Malays, and Malaysia. UMNO members (and Malays generally), still steeped in their mystical beliefs, would view the accident as divine retribution, and we would then be spared further ugly taunting and displays of racism. Short of that happening, expect even more idiotic and obnoxious flaunting. What will they think of next?

Obviously it is much easier to come out with such stunts than it is to bring novel solutions to the intractable problems facing Malays. That would be too taxing intellectually for these folks, their Oxbridge education notwithstanding. Their preoccupation with trivialities matches their juvenile mindset.

At the recent UMNO Johore convention, its leader Ghani, who is also the Chief Minister, suggested that meritocracy was not suitable for Malays! That would unfairly penalize Malay pupils attending poorly equipped rural schools, he argued. That has been the lament since colonial times. I would have expected that after over fifty years of UMNO rule, they would have solved this long-standing problem.

To think that Ghani was once dean at the University of Malaya! Obviously, had meritocracy been practiced there, he would not have reached such academic heights; hence his defense of the status quo.

Breaking the Obnoxious Habit

As UMNO members have abrogated their collective “parental” responsibilities in not disciplining Najib Razak the first time he engaged in that obnoxious stunt (indeed they egged him on), it has now become entrenched. That such ugly behaviors are also career enhancing further reinforces the pattern. Consider that Najib is now Prime Minister-in-waiting.

The only way to disabuse UMNO of such behaviors is not to reward them. The only way to deliver that message to UMNO is in the language its members can understand: blunt, brutal, and delivered in no uncertain terms, as in not voting for them in the next election. This is not the time for subtleties or niceties.

Non-Malays are now the critical swing votes. Even PAS recognizes this reality; its leaders are consciously toning down their Islamic messages and trying to broaden their appeal. At its last Muktamar (convention), it even entertained fielding non-Malay candidates, a seismic shift in attitude and thinking.

If non-Malays abandon UMNO and join the many Malays already disillusioned with UMNO, its candidates would be defeated. The Barisan coalition need not be defeated to effect major change in UMNO. If PAS were to win more seats than UMNO, that would deal a crippling psychological blow. The ensuing blame game and infighting would implode UMNO.

The last time UMNO was threatened electorally in 1969, it triggered a deadly riot. If UMNO were dethroned today, there would be jubilations in Kampong Baru as well as Chow Kit Road. Then UMNO was seen as the defender of Malays; today thanks to the obscenely ostentatious lifestyles of the UMNOPutras, it is nothing more than the party of social and economic parasites. Then Malays were economically marginalized, today with a sizable Malay middle class, Malays have as much to lose as non-Malays should there be turmoil. If there were to be any riot, it would be UMNO members blaming each other and seeking retribution for their collective debacle.

Contrary to Khairy’s naïve expectations, a weakened UMNO would not embolden its Barisan partners to challenge it. Their choice then would be to merge with PAS, not exactly a demure bride-in-waiting. Even if they were to flirt with PAS, it would not necessarily be bad for Malaysia. These non-Malay parties might just be the influence needed to moderate PAS. PAS is after all a political party, not a religious organization. If the price for gaining power is for them to tone down their Islamic message, they will. Currently PAS leaders are self-righteously rigid because they have not been given the political opportunity.

The implosion of UMNO would not be bad for Malays or Malaysia; on the contrary, it would be good. UMNO has long ceased being part of the solution. Today, UMNO is the problem, for Malays, non-Malays, and Malaysia.

We do not need divine interventions like Khairy accidentally falling on his keris to solve UMNO’s problems, it would suffice if voters were to instill a much-needed parental discipline to the party.

Malignant Neglect of Pak Lah’s Leadership

Sunday, November 12th, 2006

SEEING IT MY WAY November 9, 2006

Malignant Neglect of Pak Lah’s Leadership

The current political anxiety in Malaysia centers over two issues. One is the obvious incompetence of Abdullah Badawi’s leadership and the consequent malignant neglect of his administration. The other is the fear that his replacement would be someone even worse.

Both fears reflect the generally sorry state of the nation’s political leadership. That however should not be the excuse for us to accept the status quo. Yes, change involves risks. The Iranians thought they were doing themselves a great favor by getting rid of the Shah; look at what they have now.

What I am advocating is not simply change, but change for the better. That would not happen easily or spontaneously, we have to work hard to achieve it.

I do not pretend to know who would be best to lead Malaysia. I believe however that Allah in His Wisdom has endowed us with our share of the talented. Offhand I can name a dozen capable candidates; those closer to home should have an even longer list.

If we were to open up the process, we would more likely get better candidates and thus increase the probability of selecting the right leader. Restricting it through putting onerous burdens like having to be nominated by over 50 branches unnecessarily limits our choice. We must cast our net deep and wide.

If those would-be leaders were to present themselves and their ideas, then we could exercise our collective judgment. I believe in the Quranic wisdom that Allah would not let His community be in error. Meaning, have faith in the judgment of the crowd, but first you have to ensure that the crowd is truly inclusive and its decisions reached without corruption or coercion. Otherwise we would have essentially mob rule masquerading as democracy.

Once we have chosen our leaders, we must continually hold them to high standards and demand more of them. If we put our leaders on a pedestal and treat them like sultans, it would not take them long to think that they are. Then they would think that they are not answerable to anyone. Very dangerous! Monster leaders are not created overnight; often their followers are the enablers.

Mahathir’s Supreme Contribution

It is ironic that Mahathir would make one of his greatest contributions only after he retired. Regardless of the eventual outcome of his criticisms of the current leadership, he has already effectively broken down the entrenched cultural taboo against criticizing our leaders. By his not seeking refuge in his comfortable pension, together with his willingness to risk his considerable reputation as well as his trademark disregard for meaningless protocol and misplaced sense of social decorum, Mahathir shocked the normally placid UMNO community with his scathing criticisms of Abdullah.

To be sure, Mahathir is only one factor. Abdullah’s own ineptness invites the avalanche of criticisms and outright scorn. In fact, Mahathir was a latecomer to the party.

Then there are the Internet and the alternative media that give expressions to those dissenting views. Perversely, Abdullah paved the process by appointing incompetents like Kalimullah Hassan and Brendan Periera to run The New Straits Times. The alternative media would not have gained their immense following and respect so quickly had the mainstream media maintained some modicum of credibility.

It is this confluence of factors, the perfect storm as it were, that helped shatter our collective ingrained Hang Tuah-like blind loyalty to our leaders. I hope this particular legacy will endure. To hear his supporters say it, Abdullah claims credit for all these, attributing them to the greater transparency of his administration. Such a misreading of reality! If he had his way, he would muzzle every dissenter.

Rest assured that the next leader would not easily get a free pass. He or she would be subjected to critical scrutiny right from the start. That would be healthy and help ensure that he or she would stay on the straight and narrow path. At least that is my fervent hope!

Abdullah was well meaning, honest, and earnest in the beginning. Malaysians, exhausted by the unrelenting pace of his predecessor, were enthralled by the welcomed change in rhythm. Unfortunately, the unrestrained adulation heaped upon him early on by well-meaning supporters, together with the overwhelming electoral mandate he received soon after, quickly went to his head.

Following the elections, instead of being emboldened, he was content to rest on his laurels. He was like the high school senior who having excelled in his matriculating examination, merely coasted along at university, and then was bewildered by the disastrous consequence. He should have been working doubly hard and set himself an even higher standard after the election.

Alas, that impressive political victory seemed so long ago; it has been a steep and unnerving downhill ride ever since.

The Challenge of Securing Talent

An additional challenge for Malaysia is that politics today no longer attracts the talented. In the past, nationalism and the accompanying struggle for independence inspired many to enter politics. Today, smart young Malaysians have the world as their stage. Their skills are in demand globally. Malaysia has to aggressively entice them. Mindless emotional appeals to patriotism would not do it; challenges and opportunities would.

Even at home, there are many other exciting opportunities, like starting their own enterprises or joining multinational corporations. By default, public service generally and politics specifically is fast becoming the refuge of the less talented. Not surprisingly, our leaders are slow to appreciate this stark reality.

Reversing the trend, while difficult, is doable. Doubling the pay of ministers would definitely help. That alone would not suffice; you still need to attract fresh talent, otherwise only the current crowd would benefit. If we reduce by half the current bloated cabinet, the remaining ministers could easily double their pay without the government incurring additional costs. It would also save by having fewer Secretaries-General and other highly paid support civil servants.

One effective way to enlist fresh talent would be to secure high-level recruitment, or “helicopter candidates,” to use the local parlance. Tun Razak effectively used this strategy. He was successful because he selected only outstanding individuals with proven and widely acknowledged accomplishments. Anyone with less-than-spectacular credentials would only incite endless sniping from the troops.

Relying on members to work their way up through the party as at present merely perpetuates the current corrupt system. It is not the cream that rises to the top, only the crud and dirt that had worked their way loose through the agitator of the party’s washing machine.

Looking For UMNO’s Goldwater

Malaysia cannot endure more of the malignant neglect of Abdullah’s leadership. What UMNO (and the nation) desperately needs is a respected senior statesman (or a group of such individuals) to do what Senator Barry Goldwater did to Nixon at the height of the Watergate crisis. Goldwater personally convinced President Nixon to resign voluntarily and thus spared him (Nixon) and the nation much grief.

The crisis in Malaysia today is much worse; the damage it wrecks is hidden and far more consequential. Sadly, I do not see any potential Goldwater in the party. Tengku Razaleigh is one of the few bold enough to carry the blunt message to Abdullah. However, as the Tengku had earlier challenged Abdullah, such a role would be unseemly for Razaleigh. He could still do it credibly if he were first to publicly disavow any interest in being Prime Minister.

The other possible person would be Musa Hitam, but he is too enthralled with his fresh Tunship and is in no position to be the bearer of bad tidings to the very person who recommended the award to him.

Thus it would be up to the ordinary UMNO members to deliver the message. Knowing full well the party’s culture, that is a very tall order. Meanwhile the malignancy continues to exact its ravages upon the nation. That is the real tragedy, not the fate of any individual or leader.

Meaningless Controversy Over ASLI’s Study

Sunday, October 22nd, 2006

Meaningless Controversy Over ASLI’s Study
M. Bakri Musa and Din Merican

On reading ASLI’s report, “Corporate Equity Distribution: Past Trends and Future Policy,” we are struck by the familiar refrain of its findings and conclusions. We too have frequently expressed them in the past.

While our commentaries hardly caused ripples, ASLI was forced to withdraw the study. One reason to the different reaction could be that nobody reads our writings. Our egos however dissuade us from accepting such a pat explanation.

Judging from the ensuing shrill and polarizing comments, we reach another conclusion, one more sobering and discomfiting. That is, as Malays we can critique the NEP with relative impunity; non-Malays do so at their peril.

An equally distressing observation is that the report’s lead author is now a cause celébrè in the Chinese community. You guessed it; he is a Chinese! Likewise, Malay politicians and academics who condemned the report portray themselves as latter-day Hang Tuahs.

A few even dismiss it as “rubbish” or attribute sinister motives to its author. Such despicable performances reflect the sorry state of the nation’s leadership.

Fifty years after independence and Malaysians have yet to escape their tribalism trap. While we do not expect the average villager or hawker to be open minded and liberated from their clannish mentality, we do expect better from our intellectuals, pundits, and leaders.

There are exceptions, to be sure. Sociologist Rahman Embong rightly called for greater tolerance of dissent. Economist Ismail Salleh cautioned about being myopic, and advised us to look at the bigger picture. Shahrir Samad was sensibly more concerned with leakages in the NEP. Unfortunately such isolated sane voices are drowned by the cacophony from the ill informed and the intolerant.

ASLI’s Report

ASLI ambitiously seeks out to assess the NEP, its achievements and delivery mechanisms, in particular the equity ownership of GLCs. A tall order indeed, especially for a report that is only 40 pages long, and half of that is filled with references and useless lists of GLCs together with their elaborate interlinking ownership charts. Valuable space in the comment section is also wasted on serial raw data that could have been better presented though space-saving and readily comprehensible graphs.

The crux of its findings, and what triggered the raging controversy, is that GLCs’ and Bumiputras’ stake in the stock market is not 18 percent as claimed by the government, but closer to 45. The stir that these figures caused matches those referring to Dolly Parton’s bust measurements! Never have so many been so riled up and with so much emotion over such meaningless statistics.

The only reason for the controversy is that the two figures are on opposite sides of the magical 30 percent set by the government. Neither ASLI nor the government addresses the rationale or wisdom of that target. Why not 15 or 50 percent? If either had been chosen, there would not have been any controversy, with ASLI and the government both agreeing that the target had been achieved (with 15) or yet to be (with 50). The reality on the other hand would not have changed. Therein lies the fallacy of the obsession with such figures.

More significant is what the ASLI study reveals but does not address. If the government through its myriad GLCs has such a major presence in the KLSE, is it truly an open market? How fair would the regulatory agencies be, and how would minority shareholders’ rights be protected?

More Commentary Than Scholarly

In style and substance the report is more commentary than scholarly, despite the data, references, and appendices included. We agree with many of its observations, for example, corporate equity is not representative of the national wealth.

The stock market is for those who have money to invest. The economic problems of Bumiputras however, are far more basic, like having food on the table, or even having a table.
Stock market investors are financially sophisticated; they do need the government to hold their hands. Its role is to ensure that the market is orderly and transparent, with no collusion, insider trading, and other shady practices.

We heartily agree with the Report that the selective patronage afforded through NEP (in particular through the GLCs) resulted in serious intra-Malay cleavages while undermining interracial social cohesion and equitable economic development. We go further and assert that such intra-Malay divisions pose a far greater threat to social stability than the familiar interracial variety.

Like ASLI, we too note approvingly the promising development of genuine Sino-Malay ventures. Unlike the old Ali Baba arrangements, these new enterprises make full use of the talent of their participants, each bringing added value to their joint ventures. The government is better off in encouraging such ventures by preferentially awarding them contracts and public tenders.

We disagree with the Report’s recommendation that the NEP be need- rather than race-based. Yes, race is today no longer as valid a surrogate indicator of need as it was a generation ago. Then, the giving of a scholarship to any Malay would mean a greater than 90 percent probability that he or she would be someone poor, the first in the family to go to university, and would not have been able to do so without the extra help. Today that probability has dropped to below 50 percent.

That is the good news; the bad news is that we have not changed the ways we disburse these scholarships and other programs.

Extending the NEP to the poor of other races would not solve the poverty problem; it would only enlarge it. If NEP had been unsuccessful in ameliorating poverty among Bumiputras, there is little hope that it would be any more successful with non-Bumiputras. There is nothing inherently special about them that would insulate them from developing the same subsidy mentality. Worse, the program would suffer even greater leakages than it already now has.
NEP is meant to empower, not entrap Malays; to make them economically competitive, not turn them into permanent wards of the state.

We are for restricting the application of the NEP with a view of eventually getting rid of it. We can begin by “means testing” Bumiputras in order for them to qualify for affirmative action. That would greatly increase the program’s efficacy and reduce its leakages, while simultaneously minimizing non-Bumiputras’ resentments.

Competitiveness, Not Percentages

This obsession with percentages is misplaced; it is essentially a “zero-sum” exercise. Malays can increase their share only by others reducing theirs. If non-Bumiputra including foreign companies were to abandon KLSE and list elsewhere, the GLCs’ and Malays’ percentage would rise very quickly to 100 percent! That would be disastrous for the economy and a hollow victory for Malays.

Instead of being fixated on the capitalization percentages (whether at par or market value is irrelevant), the focus should be on enhancing the competitiveness of GLCs and Malay enterprises. Except for Petronas, Tabong Haji, and maybe MAS, the brand names of their products have no impact in the marketplace. The market share of companies like Tenaga and Telekom is purely a function of their effective monopolies.

As for return on equity (another measure of competitiveness), many are loss ridden. We would rather have fewer but more competitive Malay companies. ASLI, like the government, offers little on addressing this issue.

Regardless of which figures were used, the pattern is clear. There is no appreciable improvement, in fact a decline since 1990 and especially floowing the 1997 economic crisis.

In its estimations, ASLI uses the nominal (face value) ringgit. Obviously the 1996 ringgit is very different from the 1998 because of devaluation. Had ASLI adjusted for this and also for inflation, or better yet expressed the values in constant US dollar, the pattern over the years would be even more dramatic and stark, even if that does not change the percentage distribution.

When the NEP failed to reach its target in 1990, the immediate question should have been on how to enhance Malay competitiveness so we could participate effectively in the modern economy, including the stock market. Had that been asked, then we would have paid more attention to our schools and universities so they could produce trained, skilled, and employable graduates.

Instead, the government pumped more money into GLCs in an attempt to artificially inflate the figure. That would be akin to giving a patient aspirin to treat the fever. More important would be to address the underlying infection, then the fever would subside. If Malays were competitive that would translate into increased participation in the stock market as well as other sectors of the economy.

GLCs the Problem, not the Solution

The crucial but unasked question is what right has the government to squander precious public funds in the stock market? GLCs as instruments of the NEP are meant to facilitate Malay entry into the private sector. The aspiration was that they would be like McDonald’s Corporation; it creates more Black millionaires through its franchise system, or FedEx that spawned thousands of small entrepreneurs who own their trucks to service the company’s deliveries.

GLCs and set-aside shares for Bumiputras have degenerated into nothing more than “get rich quick” schemes for the privileged “UMNOPutras.” While there may have been some vicarious pride in the past on seeing Malays joining the millionaires’ club, hitherto the exclusive preserve of non-Malays, such reflected racial glories have long since vanished, speeded up by the obscenely ostentatious lifestyles of these newly rich Malays. Their flaunting their unearned wealth grates ordinary Malays (and Malaysians) raw.

Implicit in ASLI’s study is the assumption that GLCs are Bumiputra companies, meaning, owned by Bumiputras. That is certainly a surprise to us, as it would be to the poor Malay fishermen in Kelantan or Kadazan padi farmers in Sabah. Perhaps ASLI could use its good offices to ensure that those poor folks (and us) do get the dividend checks!

GLCs are more obstacles against than catalysts for Malay progress. They breed rent seekers and “ersatz capitalists.” GLCs, by using their size and might of the state, muscle out legitimate entrepreneurs – Malays and non-Malays.

These GLCs do not even serve as useful training grounds for would-be Malay executives and managers. The work culture is such that a stint with them is a stigma; it does not enhance your resume in the marketplace. It is instructive that one of the stated requirements when Abdullah Badawi was seeking new heads for these GLCs is that they have significant experience with multinational corporations.

Our solution to the mess is simple: get rid of the GLCs. Sell them to the highest bidders and use the proceeds to improve rural schools, build low cost housing for the poor, and erect vital infrastructures like roads and water treatment plants. That would do more good to more Malaysians, in particular poor Malays.

We could not care less who owns Malaysia Airlines. We care more that we train many Malays as pilots, managers, and mechanics so they could work not only locally but also at other airlines of the world.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of GLCs and crown corporations. America has its Fanny Mae, and Canada, its Petrocanada. Nearby, Singapore has plenty of ready examples of competitive GLCs. Competently managed and with clear missions, they would be wonderful. Otherwise get rid of them and use the funds for other useful pursuits.

Getting rid of GLCs would also remove a major source of corruption, money politics, and influence peddling. Those are good enough reasons to dump these companies, and at the same time spare the nation an unnecessary divisive controversy.

M. Bakri Musa’s latest book, Towards A Competitive Malaysia: Development Challenges in the Twenty-first Century, will be released in early 2007 ( Din Merican is Senior Research Fellow, Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, and Visiting Professor, University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. ( The views expressed do not implicate these institutions.

Grooming the Next Generation of Leaders

Sunday, October 1st, 2006

Grooming the Next Generation of Leaders

Jack Welch, the retired legendary chief executive of GE, related his less-than-pleasant task before leaving office of personally telling the three or four other capable candidates under him that they were not his choice to succeed him.

There are two points to this observation. The obvious is that GE under Welch had no shortage of capable talent for the top slot; the second, Welch’s acute sense of obligation (and class) to let the other accomplished contenders hear the bad news first and directly from him.

A common lament to my recent call for Abdullah Badawi to step down was the lack of solid candidates to succeed him, best expressed by one of the government’s backbencher in Parliament. Although when he said it, Zaid Ibrahim was merely trying to praise Abdullah Badawi, however awkwardly.

Grooming the next tier of leaders is one responsibility many leaders do not pay sufficient attention. Of all the prime ministers, only Tunku Abdul Rahman had acquitted himself well on this point; he had the capable Tun Razak.

Dynamic Duo of Razak and Ismail

For a while Tun Razak had Dr. Ismail as deputy prime minister. It reflected favorably not only on the caliber of these two distinguished Malaysians but also the prevailing climate in UMNO at the time that the two worked well together, the skills and personality of one complementing the other. In the political climate of today’s UMNO, there would be endless intrigues and Machiavellian maneuverings.

Their smooth rhythm was shattered with the unexpected death of Dr. Ismail. It could not have come at the worse possible time for Tun Razak, for he was at the time fighting his own personal battle against a deadly cancer. This fact was concealed from the public; Dr. Ismail was one of the few whom Tun Razak had confided his innermost secret. That was the kind of trust and confidence they had in one another, a combination and display rarely seen anywhere, or since.

Tun Razak displayed his astuteness in spotting talent on other than Dr. Ismail. The late Tun used his trips to the districts as opportunities to size up junior officers. He enticed many into politics, including some whose talent could easily have been overlooked because of their earlier less-than-stellar academic performance in school. Abdullah Ahmad for example, became his personal assistant. Later following the Tun’s death and the shift of political wind, Abdullah Ahmad was jailed under the Internal Security Act.

Talent, like water, finds its own level. On his release, Abdullah Ahmad went on to Cambridge; he later served as Special Ambassador to the United Nations. The Tun also saw the talent in one young Dr. Mahathir, and quickly brought him back into UMNO’s fold after the Tunku had expelled him earlier.

Not all of Tun Razak’s choices were right, of course. Struggling with his own lethal battle, we could readily excuse his choosing Hussein Onn to replace Dr. Ismail. Hussein’s subsequent tenure as Prime Minister was a forgettable one, but he had one enduring legacy: his choice of a deputy.

Selecting Mahathir was Hussein’s greatest contribution. It was ironic that later in the midst of UMNO’s internal squabbles he would repudiate what turned out to be his wisest decision!

To be sure, Hussein did not make that prescient choice on his own. The three then UMNO Vice-Presidents had essentially given him an ultimatum to pick one of them. It was a reflection of Hussein’s personal weakness and lack of leadership that he did not tell them off for usurping his prerogative.

Hussein displayed other ineptness as prime minister. Mahathir found out about his lucky future not directly from Hussein but through the latter’s press conference. Presumably the other two Vice-Presidents heard their piece of unhappy news likewise. Hussein lacked class in not personally informing them in private ahead of time.

Practice Does Not Make Perfect

Mahathir had three deputy prime ministers before Abdullah Badawi. The principle that practice makes perfect obviously eluded Mahathir, for he now openly regrets his choice. Instead of ruminating over it, he is trying hard to remedy the situation.

In picking Abdullah, Mahathir, like Hussein before him, did not venture beyond party tradition. Mahathir limited his choice to only the sitting UMNO Vice Presidents. By anointing Abdullah and discouraging contests in the two top slots (in the name of party “tradition”) Mahathir denied UMNO members their voice. More crucially, he denied the party a wider selection and the collective wisdom of its membership.

It is a delicious irony that while Mahathir endlessly exhorted Malays to break free from the suffocating bounds of our traditions, he was unable to liberate himself from the strictures of his own party!

Mahathir has one redeeming trait: determination. When he discovered late that Anwar Ibrahim was wanting as a would-be successor, he did not hesitate in correcting the error even though it was painful to him (and also Anwar), his party, and nation.

Whether Mahathir would be successful in rectifying this latest blunder (in selecting Abdullah) remains to be seen. He is now older and, more significantly, out of office. The only power he has is his considerable influence, personal conviction, and, not to be lightly dismissed, good health. Those are the very qualities lacking in Abdullah Badawi.

Abdullah’s Public Piety and “Mr. Clean” Facade

Abdullah’s public piety and “Mr. Clean” image is nothing more than a shrewdly crafted facade. The man’s character does not justify those descriptions.

Take his piety. Soon after becoming prime minister, he unashamedly indulged in a grand gesture of being Imam by leading his ministers in a widely publicized congregational prayer. The latest had him leading an even larger group after breaking fast. These are nothing more than a crass attempt at evoking the powerful images of our great Caliphs, giants who were not only political but also spiritual leaders.

Malaysians forget (or more correctly were never reminded) that Islamic Studies was not Abdullah’s first choice. He stumbled upon it because he could not handle the mathematics to pursue economics. Then, as today, Islamic Studies was a dumping ground for those not inclined for or incapable of rigorous academic pursuit.

Likewise his “Mr. Clean” image; he never had the opportunity before! Now that he is Prime (and Finance) Minister, he is furiously making up for lost time.

All previous prime ministers were magnanimous upon assuming office by pardoning prisoners, especially those held under the ISA. Abdullah granted none; so much for the charity of his Islam Hadhari.

As for his humility and frugality, this was a man who would not move into the official residence until it had undergone multimillion-dollar renovations. Apparently the décor was not up to his exquisite taste! To think that he could not even afford a house when he was dropped as a minister a while back.

Such profligacy reflects an aesthetic sophistication of a Marcos rather than the Kennedy.
The late Tun Razak agonized over putting in a swimming pool for his young children at the old Sri Perdana. He did not have to brag or publicize his frugality, humility, or piety. The fact that Abdullah has to means that he is anything but.

It is not just the citizens who were taken in by Abdullah’s carefully cultivated public persona, even the hardnosed Mahathir too bought into it. Mahathir mistook the man’s eager nodding to mean agreement when actually Abdullah was merely bidding his time as a raccoon would for the farmer to leave the chicken coup. Mahathir now publicly calls his successor a chronic liar. Any self-respecting man would take deep offence to that; Abdullah took it in stride.

Prevention Always Better Than Remediation

Jack Welch offers many insights on preventing such succession errors and the more general lesson of grooming the next tier of leaders. On his frequent visits to the periphery, Welch would ask his divisional heads to identify their promising junior officers. He would then size them up personally to see whether he agree with their superior’s assessment. Additionally he would them what they were doing to nurture those talent.

Whenever promising candidates were fast-tracked, Welch would also reward their immediate superiors. That would encourage them and others to develop the talent under them. It would also prevent the dirty trick prevalent in the Malaysian civil service where promising subordinates would be sent to obscure postings lest they become a threat to their superiors.

The civil service has an elaborate process for evaluating officers, but it is done in secret. When I was in government service, I made it a point to discuss my report with my young doctors individually and in private. There would be no point to the exercise if they were denied the valuable feedback. My senior colleagues pointedly told me that I was breaching the civil service code.

Such sessions benefited both parties; I had occasions to change my evaluations following them. Far from being dyspeptic encounters, they permitted me to know my junior officers better. Today I still get letters and e-mails from them, even those whom my evaluations had been less-than-rosy. I also bask in the reflected glory when they shine, especially those whom I had given glowing reports.

Had Malaysian leaders followed Welch’s example, they would now enjoy the luxury of having an abundance of leadership talent, and the nation would be spared the present embarrassment.

The Path To Unity Through Capitalism

Wednesday, August 30th, 2006

The Path To Unity Through Capitalism

[Note: Usually on Wednesday, I carry the serialization of my book. Today on the eve of Merdeka, I substitute this essay. The serialization of my book is delayed this week to this Sunday, September 3, 2006.]

Britain granted Malaysia its independence on the premise and promise that Malaysians would not senselessly slaughter each other once freed from her civilizing presence. Having gone through the hell-on-earth that was the Indian independence, Britain did not want her hands soiled again. There were intimations of such racial viciousness in Malaysia, as during the brief period of lawlessness following the Japanese surrender.

The British believed that the threat to Malaysia’s viability would come not from the then still very active communist insurgency but from Malaysians tearing each other apart. A seasoned gambler would wisely not bet against the British.

It was a tribute to our early leaders that they effectively demonstrated that Malaysians could indeed get along without the adult supervision of the British. Unfortunately, caught in the euphoria of merdeka, that precious shared sense of goodwill, sacrifice, and accommodation was taken for granted and not nurtured. Half a century later, the nation risks being torn apart by the increasingly shrill pronouncements of our leaders. What an ironic turn of events!

Unity Through Capitalism

Many naively believe that if only Malaysians could speak the same language, share a common culture, or subscribe to the same faith, national unity would be that much more attainable. Others fantasize that if only the political parties were not race based, racial integration would be greatly enhanced. Malays still hang on to the forlorn hope that if only we follow the one “pure” and “true” Islam, we would be united and all our problems would magically disappear.

Such delusions are based on flawed thinking, or to quote the late Lord Bauer, “a widespread disregard of evident reality.” The Koreans share the same heritage, culture, and language yet that did not stop them from killing each other, given half the chance. The more promising and enduring path to unity is not through culture, language, politics, or religion but economics, more specifically the embrace of free enterprise.

Capitalism is the most efficient economic system for producing goods and services; it is also the most effective tool to effect substantive social and cultural changes. Once Malaysians view each other and the world not in terms of race or nationality but as potential customers, business partners, and sources of capital, understanding and with it peace would follow suit.

Free enterprise is the best instrument to break down racial and other barriers. Capitalism does not differentiate between race, national origin, political persuasions, or religious beliefs. Profits are profits, whether the come from your own kind or foreigners.

I would expect socialism with its egalitarian ideals would bring people together. It failed, in Malaysia and elsewhere. Socialism failed with Malays because of its association with atheistic communism. The communists’ resorting to terrorism during the Emergency certainly did not help.

The New Economic Policy ushered Malays towards capitalism. With a visible business and trading class, Malays began looking at others less as immigrants or non-Malays and more as potential clients and customers. That put a very different perspective on reality.
To be sure, the Malays’ (specifically UMNO’s) embrace of capitalism is very recent. The term kaum kapitalis (capitalists hordes) was once unmistakably pejorative, conjuring images of heartless businessmen of Dickens’ era intent on exploiting the masses in the greedy pursuit of profits. Besides, those capitalists then were also colonialists so it was easy to hate them. With Malays now being capitalists, aided substantially by the state, capitalism has a decidedly new aroma, even if it were only the crony or ersatz variety.

Economic crises in Malaysia today no longer have racial undertones. The 1997 economic crisis had minimal racial repercussions despite the fact that many of the high-flying casualties were Malays. Likewise, the recent reduction in petroleum subsidy affected all. The pain cut across race; economic imperatives successfully breaching racial boundaries.

The government is encouraging greater integration in the business sector. This is commendable; unfortunately, it is pursuing it in its usual highhanded ways. Take the requirement that publicly-listed companies must have 30 percent Bumiputra participation. That is fine if we let the market pick who those lucky Bumiputras would be. With the Ministry of Trade officials picking the winners, that worthy scheme has degenerated into another corrupt political patronage system.

A more sensible approach would be for the government to explicitly use ownership and employee diversity as a criterion when awarding contracts. American companies are realizing that workplace diversity has its own rewards, quite apart from being the right thing to do. American corporations are outbidding their European and Japanese competitors in Africa because the American executives there are mostly Blacks. The same in China, with American companies actively recruiting ethnic Chinese Americans.

The “mom and pop” retail sector in Malaysia is essentially in Chinese hands. They usually recruit their own kind. An effective way to discourage them and at the same time enjoy the benefits of having an efficient retail sector would be to open it to foreign competitors like Carrefour and Walmart. Carrefour has exemplary recruiting policies; it actively recruits capable Malays for its frontline as well as for management jobs. Unfortunately, instead of encouraging such multinational retailers with their enlightened personnel policies and exemplary work culture, the government is restricting them, no doubt through the influence of “money politics” of UMNO politicians by these Chinese retailers.

Similarly with the small retail lending business, banks and finance companies ignore these customers with less-than-stellar credit. They have no alternative but to go to pawnshops, Al Longs, and chettiars with their usurious interest rates. They are also all exclusively non-Malay operations, right down to the goons they employ to collect their overdue payments. If Malaysia were to open the market to foreign lenders like AIG that specializes in “sub-prime” loans, we would wipe out these chettiars and Ah Longs. Malaysia would definitely be better without them. AIG, like other American companies, also have enlightened personnel policies. You could be assured that they would employ many Malays, certainly more than what the present ethnic moneylenders would.

If all else fails, Malaysians could unite and boycott ethnic establishments whose workers do not reflect Malaysian society. A few such high profile boycotts would change the employment and ownership patterns of Malaysian businesses far more effectively than any government mandate. Never underestimate the power of the market.

Race-Based Parties: The Solution, Not the Problem

As for politics, I too wish that politicians would not blatantly pander to the baser racial instincts of their followers. However, I would argue the contrary; race-based political parties contribute to racial harmony. They help ensure that minorities are represented in government. An Indian could never hope to win a parliamentary seat let alone be a minister as there is no predominantly Indian constituency. There are Indian ministers only because the Indian parties are in the ruling coalition.

Race-based parties or not, politicians now realize that to secure power they must reach beyond their racial group. At its last Muktamar, PAS adopted a resolution allowing for non-Muslim candidates, a stunning admission of this reality.

American legislatures go through grotesque gerrymandering exercises to ensure minority representations. At least the Malaysian formula is more transparent, and therefore more democratic. More importantly, it works! By coming together in a coalition, the race-based parties ensure that political power is equitably shared.

The appointed Malaysian senate is far more representative of local society than the elected American senate is of America. Chalk one up for Malaysia!

There are proportionally more Malays in Singapore than Indians in Malaysia. Thanks to the Malaysian model, Indians are more visible in the upper political reaches in Malaysia then Malays are in Singapore. This bleak picture is repeated elsewhere in the region. Malays are a significant minority in Thailand (in the south they are the majority), but one would not know that from looking at its political establishment; likewise with the Muslims in the Philippines. Ever wonder why they have strong secessionist movements?

The solution to Malaysia’s race issues lies not with doing away with the present workable formula of race-based parties but to build on it. There should be increased collaboration among the leaders; they must be seen working together. They should lead their members towards thinking for the good of the nation and not, as at present, pandering to the most extremist of their followers. Far too often, the surest way for an UMNO candidate to win party votes is to champion the Malay cause. The most ugly demonstration was shown by UMNO Youth leader and Education Minister Hishamuddin when he infamously drew that ketchup-dripping keris (dagger) to demonstrate his resolve to be a latter day Hang Tuah.

Race remains a major factor in the political calculus, and will remain so for a long while. Better to acknowledge this reality and work on improving it instead of dreaming of some unworkable utopian arrangement. Even in mature democracies like America, race is never far from political considerations.

The better solution would be to focus on economics, not politics. We are all consumers, and we are all for lower prices and better services. That economic imperative transcends race, nationality, and class. That is a goal worth pursuing as Malaysia anticipates its Golden Merdeka Anniversary next year.

Happy Merdeka!

Breaking Down Mental Barriers

Sunday, August 6th, 2006

Breaking Down Mental Barriers

The King recently called upon Muslims to open up their minds to knowledge. As head of the faith, the King should impress this first on our ulama and religious scholars. Their demand that discourses in Islam should only be among and by them reflects their closed minds. This intellectual arrogance is also far from the image of humility and piety we expect of them.

These scholars have learned little from their illustrious predecessors. Ancient Muslim luminaries did not hesitate seeking knowledge from the Greeks, Romans and Hindus; they were not at all perturbed at learning from the infidels. Those scholars acknowledged that all knowledge begins with Allah. That He had chosen to dispense the wisdom of the concept of zero to a Hindu, the secret of the atom to a Jew, and the universality of gravity to a Christian, is not for us to question. Suffice to know that such insights are for the benefit of all mankind.

Having mastered the then known body of knowledge, those scholars went on to make their own seminal contributions that enlightened the world. They did not distinguish between “secular” and “religious” knowledge. Ibn Sinna and others made significant contributions to the sciences as well as theology.

Like the Berlin Wall, the massive mental wall today’s Islamic scholars erect around themselves will eventually crumble. Until then they are trapped, entangled in the infinite variations of the contents while missing their underlying universal concepts. While we look upon our differences and diversities as a sign of God’s Grace, these ulama would seek to impose “purity,” as they see it.

Etiquette of Disagreement

Many believe that if only we would go back to the original text and have the “right” interpretations, then all the differences and divisions amongst us would magically disappear. Such naivety! As long as we are humans, there will be differences.

Instead of bemoaning such differences and letting them divide us, we should learn to live with them. It would then be much easier for us to get along not only with each other but also with those outside our faith.

We should learn the etiquette of disagreement. Disagreements are a sign of God’s beauty, but only if they lead us to better understand ourselves, and those who disagree with us. Disagreements are God’s blessings, only if they help expand our horizon and appreciate other perspectives. This assumes a certain degree of humility on our part; we are not always right, and those whom we disagree with are not always wrong. If we let those disagreements divide us, then they would be ugly and a curse.

It is well to remember that disagreements occurred even during the prophet’s time. Once the prophet instructed his traveling parties to meet and pray Asar at a certain place. On the way, one of the parties was delayed, and disagreements immediately arose on whether they should continue and pray when the reached their destination as the per the prophet’s earlier instruction, or stop and pray right there and then as per Quranic dictates. One party decided to do this, while the other proceeded on. Later when they met the prophet s.a.w. at their final destination, they asked him which party was right. The prophet s.a.w. replied that both were!
There were also profound disagreements soon after the prophet’s death over who should lead the community. Again the companions did not let that disagreement came between them; they agreed to a satisfactory formula after discussions (shura).

Breaking Down the Mental Berlin Wall

Just as ancient scholars made no distinction between secular and religious knowledge, likewise today’s scholars are breaking down artificial barriers separating the various disciplines. My own specialized area of surgery is benefiting immensely by contributions from such fields as engineering and space research.

With Islamic studies, we are fortunate that there are emerging today scholars who have been exposed to the traditional system and then benefited from the superior Western liberal education and rigorous scholarship. In the West and freed from the censorship that had stifled them back in their homeland, their contributions are a refreshing breadth of fresh air. They are slowly but surely peeling away the layers of accretions that have fossilized Islam since the tenth century.

Theirs is still work in progress, but they have already demonstrated the universality of the principles of this great faith, giving substance to the Quranic refrain that Islam is indeed a “perfect religion for all mankind and at all times.”

In their native lands these scholars would be branded as adulterators of their faith (bida’a) or worse, apostates. In the freedom of the West, and with a supportive and nurturing intellectual environment, their scholarships blossomed.

The dean of such scholars, the late Fazlur Rahman, suggested that we should deduce from the particularities of the Quran and hadith their underlying principles, and then apply them to the challenges of today. Obviously modern society is very different from that of the prophet’s time, but the moral imperatives remain the same. Such an exercise would demand considerable intellectual effort, much more than the mindless parroting of some ancient texts.

All faiths subscribe to the golden rule, or variations thereof. No argument over the concept; at issue are the contents. A barbed wire fence can be a reassuring protective barrier to some; an intimidating intrusive barricade to others, even when viewed from the same side. A hijab may be oppressive to a Western feminist but liberating to a Muslim housewife. Exposing one’s midriff may be emancipating to a Westerner but degrading to an Easterner.

If we focus on the contents, the twain shall never meet; concentrate on the concept – personal freedom – then we are likely to find common ground.

An injured Christian in Beirut does not feel awkward in a Red Crescent ambulance, any more than a Muslim patient in Boston has qualms receiving blood from the Red Cross. If we associate the Red Cross with the Crusaders and the Red Crescent, the Saracens, and not on the universality of their mission to serve the sick and displaced, then there will be no end to the conflict.

Our ulama should seek out and welcome contributions from outside their field. If they have an appreciation of the social and physical sciences, that would only enhance their understanding of our great faith. Their fatwas (decrees) then would have far greater influence and impact. Learning from non-ulama would not in any way diminish their piety. Rest assured that when we need someone to solemnize our marriages, lead our prayers, or bless births in the family, we would still go to our trusted ulama.

Our religious scholars should heed well these words of the Egyptian intellectual Taha Hussein, “The end will begin when seekers of knowledge become satisfied with their own achievement.”