Archive for the ‘the Sun – Essays 2005’ Category

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #127

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

[Please note that the next posting will be on Wednesday Nov 18, 2009.  MBM]

Chapter 19: Islam: The Solution, Not The Problem

Model Plural Society

Islam entered the Malay world through trade and not by the sword. This explains in part why Malays have always espoused the more tolerant version of the faith. The increasing fundamentalism of the faith in Malaysia that is prevalent today is a recent phenomenon. The ancient Malay empire at Malacca, located in the pathway of the maritime trade between east and west, was host to many foreign visitors and cultures. The Malays there, like inhabitants of trading centers elsewhere, were remarkably cosmopolitan.

Throughout its history, Malaysia has been open to other cultures, from the early Arab and Indian traders to the European colonialists. Walk along any Malaysian street today and you would likely find a mosque, a church, Chinese temple, and Hindu shrine.

Colonialism disturbed this equilibrium through the massive influx of immigrants and the consequent deliberate “divide and conquer” policy of segregating the various communities. This segregation is now returning, this time voluntarily, and with it, the lessening of tolerance.

Malaysians also have minimal tolerance to alternative lifestyles, in particular the gay lifestyle. Former Prime Minister Mahathir openly condemned homosexuals and homosexuality. Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was sacked for his alleged homosexuality. I would rather that he had been fired for being incompetent or corrupt.

For Malays, there is yet another manifestation of intolerance, against those whose views of Islam are at variance to that of their own. The government never hesitates in using the ISA to incarcerate those whose views on Islam differ from the official version. Even supposedly enlightened Muslim scholars are infected with this intolerance. At the International Islamic University you would need a special dispensation, and would be watched very closely, should you ask to read books on Shiism (which are kept under lock and key). So much for open inquiry, the hallmark of a university!

Those shortcomings notwithstanding, Malaysia remains an exemplary model of racial and cultural tolerance. If only other Muslim (or non-Muslim) countries would emulate Malaysia and treat their minorities in like fashion, they would gain not only greater peace and stability, but also reap the benefits of the talent of their minority citizens. Unfortunately, many Muslim countries have difficulty tolerating even their fellow Muslims who do not subscribe to the majority school of Islam. Pakistan continually harasses its Shiite and Ismaili citizens. In Iraq, the Shiites are battling the Sunnis, and both are clashing with the Kurds. All are Muslims, of course!

Similarly, if non-Muslim countries like Thailand and the Philippines were to treat their Muslim minorities as well as Malaysia does, the separatist movements in Southern Thailand and Mindanao would dissipate. Muslims constitute a sizable minority in both countries, but you would not know that by looking at their elite class.

America and Malaysia have learned not only to tolerate but more importantly value diversity, rightly recognizing it as a valuable asset. Others have yet to learn this elementary lesson; consequently, their diversity has by default become a dangerous liability.

Next: Revamping Islam

Remembering Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Monday, May 8th, 2006

Remembering Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Reposted from the Sun May 4, 2006

You can tell much about a culture by how it treats its gifted and talented, and whom it honors and celebrates. It is for this reason that I am pessimistic about the future of our giant neighbor and kin, Indonesia.

Its gifted son, the writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer, died on Sunday, April 30th, 2006 at 81, after a long illness. Vice-President Jusuf Kalla reportedly sent some flowers, about the only official tribute to this great man.

Pak Pram would have preferred it that way, for every time the Indonesian authorities paid any attention to him, he ended up paying dearly for it. It did not matter who was in charge.

The Dutch incarcerated him during the dying days of colonialism. Sukarno did his part in 1959. That must have hurt Pram immensely for he had the highest esteem for Sukarno for uniting that polyglot archipelago. Pram suffered the longest, and most brutal, when Suharto banished him to Pulau Buru from 1965 to 1979. Even when Pram was released from Buru, he was not free; he was under house arrest.

Suharto banished Pram for an indeterminate period, with no formal trial or charges. That reflected the contempt Suharto and his ilk had for the rule of law. Pram and thousands of others paid a high price for that callousness.

In his Nyanyi Sunyi Seorang Bisu (The Mute’s Soliloquy), Pramoedya paid tribute to his fellow prisoners. He listed those who had died, lest the world would forget them. It is a long and mournful list.

Knowing the appalling conditions, as Pramoedya so graphically chronicled, each of those deaths must have been unmercifully cruel. Whatever sins those poor souls may have committed, surely a Merciful Allah would look kindly upon them.

If the intent was to destroy Pramoedya, then Suharto had grossly underestimated the inner strength of this mortal. It reflects the Justness of Allah that today Suharto faces charges of corruption and possible war crimes while the rest of the world lauds Pramoedya. In his homeland however, they still ban his books.

Knowing full well that he was a writer, the authorities at Buru deprived him of pencil and paper. Undeterred, he would compose his stories in his head and re-told them repeatedly to his fellow prisoners. With each telling he would refine the language and narrative. By the time he was released, he had the full four-volume series completed, polished, and ready to be committed to paper. It did not take him long to complete that mechanical part of writing. He published in quick succession his Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind), Anak Semua Bangsa (This Child of Mankind), Jejak Langkah (Footsteps), and Rumah Kaca (The Glass House) to international acclaim.

That was my introduction to Pramoedya Ananta Toer, through the superb English translations. I resolved to collect his entire works in the original Bahasa Indonesia; I am not there yet.

It is a sad commentary that I have difficulty getting his books; Malaysian bookstores do not carry them. Worse, their personnel did not even know who Pramoedya was. Shame on them!

Reading the original in Bahasa after reading the translated version did not in any way diminish the pleasure or anticipation, surely the ultimate tribute to the skills and fidelity of his translators.

Pramoedya was on a North American tour in 1999, sponsored by his American publisher. My greatest regret was not being able to attend his public lecture at Berkeley. It took intense international pressure on Suharto to release Pram for his international tour.

The University of Michigan may have conferred an honorary doctorate on Pramoedya, and the Magsaysay Foundation its highest honor, but no Indonesian or Malaysian university has seen fit to recognize this great figure of Malay literature. His works may have been translated in over 40 languages and enjoyed by millions worldwide, but they have yet to reach the Malay masses.

I am sad for Pram and his family; I am even sorrier for Malay culture. A culture cannot hope to aspire to great heights if it does not value the talented and gifted in its midst.

I re-read Bumi Manusia for solace upon hearing of his death. Pramoedya’s courage, passion and wisdom again came to life through his prose. A hundred years from now, not many very remember Sukarno and Suharto, but Pram’s writings will continue to touch the hearts of his readers. In our language, Pramoedya Ananta Toer was truly “Anak Yang Soleh.” May Allah bless his soul!

The Environment Maketh The Man

Sunday, April 30th, 2006

The Environment Maketh The Man
Reposted from The Sun April 27, 2006

Years back I attended a picnic at a California public park with some Malaysian students. What struck me was that despite the all-Malaysian participants, the gathering was no different from the others I had taken part in my community.

Meaning, the students carefully tidied up afterwards, did not litter, and were careful to dump their garbage into the bins. Yet if those same students were to have a similar picnic in Malaysia, I could just imagine the mess they would leave.

What gives?

They are the same individuals. In an American environment, they behave like Americans, very civic conscious. Back in Malaysia, they behave, well, as Malaysians, littering with abandon. The environment makes them behave differently.

An American public park is well maintained, with garbage cans conveniently located and thoughtfully emptied the day before, and park employees highly visible and ready to offer help. Even if you were the naturally untidy sort, you would be inhibited to mess the place up.

I once took my family to a public park in Malaysia. Hard as I tried, I could not find a garbage can to throw out our ice cream wrappers. When we did find one, it was overflowing, with debris all around. It seemed futile to deposit our rubbish there.

Nothing in the supposedly premier park encouraged me to keep it clean. The grass was uncut, shrubs overgrown, and of course litter strewn everywhere. The message was clear though unstated: The place is a dump, so go ahead and treat it accordingly! Law enforcement officials are familiar with the broken window syndrome. If you do not fix the broken window of a house that has been vandalized, it will attract other more dangerous mischief makers. Soon the
building will become the haunt of drug addicts.

New York successfully reduced its major crime rates by aggressively going after minor offenders such as panhandlers. Seasoned criminals rightly figured that if the police were tough on such petty offences, they would not tolerate more serious crimes. It was remarkably effective.

Never underestimate the influence of the environment. My favorite entertainment when living in Johor Baru was to watch the almost instantaneous transformation of Singaporeans when they came over. Back on their tiny and tidy island, they queued obediently and were careful not to litter or spit in public.

Once over the causeway, they would throw their cigarette butts out of their cars with abandon. The only reason they did not spit was it would splash their windows! At dinner buffets, they brazenly cut through the line, oblivious of the disapproving gazes of the other patrons.

In Singapore, there are threatening signs, “Do Not Smoke!” In California, “Thank You For Not Smoking!” Same behavior, but different environment; Singaporeans respond better to the big stick, Californians to sweet carrots.

Environmental influence can be consequential. Consider Benazir Bhutto and Shaukat Aziz, Pakistan’s former and current Prime Ministers respectively.

Bhutto graduated from Harvard and Oxford; you could not get a more sterling academic pedigree than that. She returned home immediately, eager to burnish her credentials as a patriot, and cut her political teeth by joining her father’s party.

Shaukat Aziz was the product of a nondescript Pakistani college but was fortunate to work for the local branch of Citibank. He thrived there such that he was considered at one time to be Citibank’s next CEO. As Prime Minister, he has been honest, effective, and responsible for Pakistan’s recent remarkable economic transformation. Bhutto’s tenure was scandal ridden and rife with corruption, with the country degenerating into an economic basket case.

At Citibank, talent and hard work are rewarded; in Pakistan’s retail politics, you acquire other less savory skills.

When I meet Malaysians attending elite American universities, I advise them to choose carefully where they work. Work at Shell, and rest assured that your talent will be nurtured and rewarded. Choose a GLC and you rapidly acquire the skills of sucking up to your superiors (kaki bodek). Join UMNO Youth and all you will learn are intrigue, back stabbing, and insulting and threatening those who disagree with you. Even if you do end up as Prime Minister, you will be a
Bhutto, carelessly pronounced.

The environment makes you, so choose carefully.

A Bridge That Stirs Troubled Waters

Sunday, March 26th, 2006

A Bridge That Stirs Troubled Waters
M. Bakri Musa

[From the Sun Thursday March 9, 2006]

The water in the narrow Strait of Johore is usually calm. In fact it is unhealthily stagnant, as the causeway had effectively dammed the waterway and stopped the natural ebb and flow of the tide across it.

This will soon change if Malaysia were to proceed with its planned suspended bridge. The bridge threatens to stir the water, literally and figuratively.

The new structure would not increase capacity, as it would still have the same number of lanes as the existing causeway. Even if the lanes were increased, the bridge would not appreciably increase the capacity, as the other (Singapore) half of the causeway remains the same.

The suspended bridge could markedly improve the marine ecology, as there would once again be free flow of tide across the strait, at least on the Malaysian side. That would reduce the stagnancy and the stench, as well as enhance the esthetics and the marine environment.

If that is the reason for the bridge, then I would applaud its proponents for their ecological consciousness.

That objective could however be achieved just as effectively and at a considerably lower price by burrowing a series of wide tunnels. This retrofit could be done without disrupting traffic.

There are already a few culverts, but they have silted up for lack of maintenance, as are the drains and rivers in town. There is no assurance that the more expensive bridge would not be similarly neglected. Even with the new bridge, the strait would still be blocked because the existing causeway would remain to carry the railroad. Transferring the tracks onto the crooked bridge would be the height of folly; I have yet to see a curved railroad bridge.

Of course the much cheaper tunnel alternative would entail correspondingly smaller profits, and, let us also openly acknowledge, less generous “commissions” and “Kopi Oh!” money. This more than anything else is what drives this common sense-defying and exorbitantly expensive project.

Underwater tunnels, being not visible, would not give rise to bragging rights. There would be no showpiece monument for visitors to behold as they drive across.

I do not dismiss this vanity aspect to the bridge. A beautiful suspended bridge on the Malaysian half would be a spectacular contrast to the drab causeway on the Singapore side, remnant of the utilitarian, low budget, and “good enough for the natives” colonial mentality.
Singaporeans, being residents of a First World city, would not be easily impressed with the suspended bridge; their reactions would likely be one of detached bemusement. They and other foreign visitors would more likely be impressed with Malaysia if our customs and immigration counters were more efficient, and clean.

Considering our culture, I do not minimize the “show off” factor to the new bridge. Drive through the exclusive residential areas of Klang Valley, and we see palatial mansions behind gilded gates and ornate fences. Step outside the well-manicured and immaculately maintained grounds and the stark reality of urban Malaysia hits you: roadside brushes uncut, rubbish all over, and drains plugged.

Yet, for a fraction of the price of these expensive gates and brick fences they could have the drains covered and thus effectively expand their usable land and simultaneously eliminate the stench. If they would jointly maintain their common public areas instead of having to depend on the city, the enhanced esthetic, health and other benefits would far outweigh the costs, not to mention the increase to their property values.

The owners of these ostentatious residences are also likely to be the ones responsible for our public polices. So it is not surprising that they would want to build an expensive bridge to show off to visitors when the money could have been better spent sprucing up the waterfront and cleaning up the deadly polluted Sengget River.

If there were to be a bridge, let it be right across, replacing the entire causeway. Apparently, Singapore’s opposition is over the cost, especially in relation to the expected benefits. If that were the case, make the project subject to the realities of the marketplace.
One way would be to invite potential concessionaires and allow them to charge toll fees. This would spare both governments the expense, with the risk borne entirely by the operators and the revenues paid by users on both sides. Another would be to privatize the project, with the two neighbors owning equal shares and the project funded through private financing to be repaid by user fees. To ensure transparency and to get the best price, open the bidding to international competition.

A joint venture with Singapore on this bridge might teach Malaysia a lesson or two, like how to get the best contract and run an efficient public utility. The most important lesson would be how much cheaper a project would cost if it were subjected to rigorous competition and spared of corruption.

If either option were to happen, the new bridge would truly symbolize the physical, social, economic and other bonds linking the two nations.]

This half bridge proposal has already created considerable anxiety across the causeway. There are those who think that anything that would provoke such reactions in Singapore must automatically be good for Malaysia.

This is an exception; scraping the project would spare Malaysia the unneeded expense and at the same time improve relations with our neighbor.

RMC’s Wise Decision to Drop Lower Forms

Sunday, March 19th, 2006

RMC’s Wise Decision to Drop Lower Forms

(From the Sun Weekend edition, February 18, 2006)

The decision by the Ministry of Defense to eliminate Forms I-III and re-institute Sixth Form at the Royal Military College is wise. I hope this is just the beginning of the innovations, and that other residential schools would follow RMC’s lead.

By eliminating the lower forms, RMC would effectively double its output for the same resources. Besides, children at that age are too young and psychologically very vulnerable to be separated from the support and nurturing of their family. By bringing back Sixth Form, RMC would have its own matriculation program. This would be considerably cheaper and far more effective then the current matrikulasi.

As I wrote in my book, An Education System Worthy of Malaysia, our residential schools get the best students and teachers, and consume more than their fair share of resources. Despite that, their aggregate results are disappointing.

Visit any leading university, and the Malaysians there are more likely to come from other than our residential schools. Our elite too are shunning these schools, opting for private schools locally or even abroad. The Deputy Prime Minister sends his daughter abroad for her matriculation. The clamor for expanding international schools also reflects this sentiment.

MARA recently opened its residential schools to non-Bumiputras. That there are few takers indicates the low standing of these schools among non-Bumiputras. Consequently, the experiment to decrease the insularity and stiffen the competition fails miserably. These schools remain segregated racially, and their competitive spirit nonexistent.

The Ministry of Education tried to eliminate Form I at Malay College in 1971, but intense lobbying by its “old boys” scuttled the idea on grounds that it would weaken its “tradition.” I argue the opposite. Certain traditions, in particular the college’s celebration of mediocrity, need to be broken. Today, Malay College does not even prepare its students for matriculation; they have to go elsewhere. So much for hallowed tradition!

Eliminating the lower forms should be just the beginning for RMC; it should go further. Its curriculum must be revamped to emphasize English, mathematics, and the sciences. I suggest that RMC be English-medium.

RMC has a national responsibility to prepare those bright students under its tutelage for the best universities. Anything less is unacceptable. RMC must regain its earlier stature where its graduates ended up in such institutions as Oxford and West Point.

This means the students must sit for well recognized matriculation examinations. Today these are the International Baccalaureate (IB), America’s Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT) and Advanced Placement (AP), and the British GCE-A level. IB and AP are especially highly regarded; IB in particular provides both depth and breadth.

Private institutions are already preparing their students for these examinations. These examinations are a novelty only to the bureaucrats, educators, and students of our government schools.

Residential schools are expensive. To defray the costs, I would charge tuition and boarding, subsidizing only the needy. Another way to reduce cost and at the same time expand capacity would be to make these schools not wholly residential. Those who live nearby could be day students.

To make these schools even more effective, they should admit students only from rural areas. These are the students who would benefit most from the superior facilities. There is little point in admitting those already attending superior schools.

I would grant these schools their autonomy, giving them an annual global budget based on enrolment and agreed-upon performance criteria. Let each school, guided by its Trustees, run its affairs, design the curriculum, and chart its course, including the freedom to hire and fire the staff. Such school-based management would result in the blossoming of innovations. Each school would be free to try new ideas, and the successful ones would then be shared and adopted by others.

The current system is too rigid and centralized. There is no room for local creativity and initiative. Every decision is made at the ministry, by personnel most remote from the problems and realities of the classroom. This cannot be good.

With these suggested changes, our residential schools would then aspire for greater heights and benchmark themselves against the Etons and Grotons of the world. Currently they compare themselves to the likes of SMK Ulu Kelantan, and then smugly pronounce themselves elite and successful.

Folly of Government’s Involvement in Commerce

Saturday, December 31st, 2005

Folly of Government’s Involvement in Commerce
M. Bakri Musa

[Reposted from the Sun, Weekend Edition, December 30, 2005, as part of its Year-in-Review series.]

Consider these isolated headlines of 2005; the pattern is obvious even if we refuse to recognize it.

Senior UMNO politicians guilty of money politics; Proton and Malaysia Airlines reporting colossal losses; and Bank Islam weighed down with massive dud loans. Then there was Tun Mahathir’s very public tiff with his erstwhile ardent supporter, Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz, over the AP issue. Meanwhile, nine Government-linked companies (GLCs) hogged 90 percent of the RM47.5B of Treasury’s guaranteed loans.

These are the predictable consequences when the government dabbles in commerce. Ibn Khaldun said it best over 600 years ago in his Muqaddimah (An Introduction [to the Study of History]), “Commercial activity on the part of the ruler is harmful to his subjects and ruinous to the tax revenue.” Substitute “ruling party” for “ruler,” and we have the current mess.

Those UMNO politicians could not afford to indulge in money politics if all they had was their official pay. UMNO?s involvement in business created this class of rich, corrupt politicians. That is but one aspect of the ?harmful? part referred to by Ibn Khaldun.

As for being ruinous to the tax revenue, the total cost of bailing out these GLCs easily exceeded the country’s current budget. That was a simple exercise of just adding the figures, meaning, only the nominal cost. The real costs are considerably higher. One billion ringgit spent in 1995 would be equivalent to over 1.5B today, after factoring for inflation and devaluation.

The opportunity costs are even greater. Had those billions been spent on schools and villages, our citizens would definitely be better educated and much healthier. They would then contribute even more to the economy, not to mention the Treasury in the form of their enhanced income and other taxes. As a bonus, they would have fewer opportunities to become corrupt.

This bleeding of the public purse is not slowing. Recent corporate reorganizations are merely cosmetic; they do not address the underlying flawed assumptions. Besides, those exercises distract the management; they benefit only investment bankers and corporate lawyers.

There is a place for the government in business. America’s Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was responsible for the massive rural electrification that uplifted the lives of millions of Americans. It also spawned many new industries. The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) brought affordable homes to the American middle class.

America has not done everything right. Its Amtrak rivals our Malaysia Airlines in sucking up public funds.

It was the genius of the late Tun Razak to set up these GLCs. He recognized that only the government had the resources to take on the then entrenched economic powers. They had already carved the marketplace unto themselves, erecting formidable barriers to new entrants.

Establishing entities like UDA, Pernas, and Petronas was the only way to break those barriers. GLCs were to spearhead the entry of Bumiputra into the marketplace. Through GLCs, Tun Razak used the might of government to push the economy towards free enterprise and away from the monopolization by colonial corporations.

Those early GLCs nurtured young Bumiputra managers and entrepreneurs. Many later joined multinational corporations (MNCs) or started their own ventures, exactly the objectives of the late Tun.

The situation today could not be more different. In searching for a new Chief Executive for Malaysia Airlines, one stated criterion was that the individual have extensive experience in an MNC, a tacit admission that these GLCs have failed in grooming future executives.

Instead of spawning new entrepreneurs, these GLCs snuffed them out. Hundreds of minibus operators – the most elemental form of free enterprise system – had their livelihood snatched away when a GLC took over their routes. Not only was the commuting public not well served, it destroyed an entire class of budding entrepreneurs. With them went the self-employed mechanics, frame builders, and others.

Now Malaysia Airlines is using its clout with the government to snuff out its local competitor, Air Asia. The latter contributes to the Treasury; the former bleeds it.

Another rationale for GLCs is that “strategic” industries be under local control. I prefer an efficient, revenue-producing local enterprise regardless of who owns it to one that that is locally owned but heavily subsidized and highly inefficient.

It would have been far more productive to use the funds wasted on GLCs to subsidize and encourage MNCs to employ and nurture Bumiputra managers and suppliers.

Many see the failure of GLCs as reflecting Bumiputra aptitude and competence for commerce, conveniently forgetting the similar dismal fate of such corporations in China and India. Nonetheless, those ugly racist perceptions persist. I would have thought that should have motivated those currently running GLCs to excel.

If the government’s role in the private sector were along the lines of TVA and not Amtrak, it would more likely achieve the objectives of the original New Economic Policy.

Persistence Personified – Mansor Puteh

Saturday, December 10th, 2005

Persistence Personified – Mansor Puteh
[Reprinted from the Sun Weekend Edition, Dec 9, 2005.]

This spring, author and filmmaker Mansor Puteh will be returning to Columbia University to present his portfolio for the Masters in Fine Arts (MFA). There is nothing newsworthy there, except that the last time Mansor was on campus was over two decades ago.

Students do drop out of universities, even at the Ivy League, as Bill Gates did at Harvard and Vice-President Richard Cheney at Yale. That did not seem to interfere with their careers.

Taking time out either between high school and college or between undergraduate and graduate school is quite common for American students. If he were an American, Mansor would be in good company. For a Malaysian however, his decision to leave just shy of his graduation for his MFA must have caused his family severe anguish. I can imagine the scene when he returned home! He certainly would have been branded – and made to feel – a failure.

Mansor did complete his studies except for the formality of his thesis project. He submitted this later from Malaysia, but thanks to the reliability of the Postal Service, it never reached his supervisor.

Talent, like water, has a way of finding its own level. Meanwhile Mansor has written 57 books; he intends to make that 60. He also has scores of movies and television dramas to his credit. Impressive!

Mansor does not need his MFA; his accomplishments speak for themselves. The fact that Columbia willingly accepts him back reveals the flexibility of American universities. I cannot imagine a local university entertaining such a request.

For his dissertation, Mansor will present his forthcoming film, Malaysian Snow, based on his own novel. It is about two young men from one kampong who attended the same American college. One, an albino, decided to stay back and pass himself as a Caucasian; the other returned home. Years later, their paths again crossed. As for the ending, read the book or wait for the movie!

Mansor’s own personal story is both illustrative and instructive. The fact that he pursued fine arts was itself unusual. That choice is not usually on the radar screen of Malaysians. It is drilled by parents and teachers that our young pursue “real” degrees, meaning, those that would assure a good job. To Malaysians, music and the fine arts are frivolous subjects. Fortunately, MARA Institute of Technology had a program in fine arts. There Mansor’s lecturers recognized his talent and encouraged him to further his studies.

His acceptance to Columbia should have been a cause for celebration and pride for MARA considering that it was a young institution and eager to highlight the achievements of its graduates. No such luck!

Nor were the authorities eager to fund him. At a time when the government was sending thousands to third-rate universities abroad, one would have thought that someone admitted to the graduate program at an Ivy League institution would grab the attention of the authorities.

The number of Malaysians, especially Malays, accepted to elite universities is miniscule. That being the case, we should shower those select few with offers of scholarships. That this is not so is a sad commentary on how we treat talent.

A few years ago, a young Malay lawyer was accepted to Harvard’s prestigious LLM program. MARA’s excuse for not giving him a scholarship was that Malaysia does not recognize the American legal system! Obviously the authorities do not value superior education and training.

Mansor suffered through the usual culture shock of being in graduate school and living in New York. That his classmates represented the best of America and the world only increased the challenge. The reward was that luminaries in the field of filmmaking taught him well.

An unfortunate illness, rather than academic difficulties, caused him to disrupt his studies. It is an enduring tribute to the strength of the human spirit that despite the bleak prognosis of his bone tumor hanging over him, Mansor was able to lead a productive and creative life.

Faced with a dilemma two decades ago, Mansor rightly put his personal health ahead of his studies. He overcame that considerable obstacle; this second hurdle should merely be a bump on the road. Mansor’s story is an inspiration for us to pursue our dreams despite the barriers.

[Mansor Puteh can be contacted at:]

Learning Islam By Writing About It

Friday, November 18th, 2005

Learning Islam by Writing About It

[A slightly shorter version appeared in the Sun , Weekend edition, November 18, 2005]

Writing on Islam is one way for me to learn about my faith. When I do, I can count on receiving many responses, some passionate and a few, extreme, to the point of crudity.

I am deeply appreciative of those who are supportive of my views. Often they lament that they are unable to express their own thoughts and feelings in Malaysia because of fear and other reasons. This further reinforces my gratitude to Allah for this freedom I enjoy living in the West. It also reminds me of the awesome responsibilities that go along with that freedom.

This freedom enables me to explore the rich heritage of my faith. To my delight, many of the spiritual and theological issues I have been struggling with have engaged the greatest minds in Islam, past and present. Far from undermining my faith, such exposures have strengthened it. Back in Malaysia, they would jail or at the very least, brand me a “deviationists” for daring to “stray.”

To the Malaysian Islamic establishment, and others, we would solve all that ails Muslims if only we could go back to the original “pure” Islam, as defined by them of course.

Categories of Critics

Those who disagree with me fall roughly into three categories. First are those who are sincerely concerned with my personal salvation. The second are the ulama and others with impeccable Islamic credentials who disdainfully dismiss me for daring to comment on matters they claim to be their exclusive preserve. The third smugly proclaim that their ulama, gurus or scholars are “smarter” and more learned than mine, and that I have been “misled.”

Repent, the first group would earnestly plead to me, before it is too late! They would even pray for my salvation should I do so. While I am touched by their concerns about my entering Heaven, nonetheless I cannot believe something that does not make sense to me. After all, God gave me akal (reason), and I value that divine gift by fully using it.

The overriding and recurring message of the Quran is to command good and forbid evil. This is further reinforced by the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, may peace and the blessings of Allah be upon his soul. When an alim, no matter how pious and impeccably credentialed, exhorts me to “kill the infidels” while heavily quoting the Quran or Hadith, the message does not resonate with me. Tak masuk akal (It does not make sense), as we say back in my kampong. That does not mean that I do not believe in the Quran or Hadith, rather only that alim’s interpretation.

On the Day of Judgment, the Good Lord will judge me solely on my own actions and niat (intentions). I cannot excuse them, says the Quran, by saying that I am following the teachings of that great alim or this eminent scholar. There is no “Being a Good German” defense in Islam, that is, no excuse for merely following orders.

Those in the second group would chide me for even daring to write about Islam. How presumptuous of me dwelling in the land of the infidels and who could recite but a few short verses of the Quran to enter into a discourse with a hafiz (someone who has memorized the entire Quran) and who had spent decades with the great ulama at Al-Azhar. Such insolence and cheekiness on my part!

Let me answer them by resorting to the teaching manner of our great prophet Muhammad s.a.w., that is, by an anecdote. May Allah forgive me if I sound pretentious!

Imagine if a simple kampong woman were to consult me for a cancerous lump in her breast. I recommended surgery. She demurred, preferring instead to seek herbal treatment and the advice of a bomoh. She had heard of terrible complications from surgery; even death!

Should I then berate her for her temerity to challenge the diagnosis and advice of an experienced surgeon with years of training and multiple degrees to boot? Can’t she tell that from all those fancy-framed diplomas on my wall? Should I then contemptuously dismiss her? After all, what does she know about oncology, pharmacology, immunology, and all the other “-logies.” She does not even know the meaning of the word “cell,” much less a cancerous one!

Or, should I address her concerns? Yes, people do die and have bad complications from their surgery. Fortunately today, with well-trained surgeons and anesthesiologists, as well as wonderful drugs, modern surgery is safe. Yes, the occasional unfortunate few have complications and indeed die. Perfection after all is only with Allah.

With the first approach, I am effectively denigrating her, treating her as inferior to me. That is ‘unIslamic.’ We are all equal. I may be better at performing surgery than she is at carving her chicken, but then she could stir up a mean rendang better that I could. By treating her with respect, that is, as an equal, she may even change her mind and opt for the life-saving surgery. Even if she does not, at least she would have a better understanding of modern medicine. She would be better for it, and I would have the satisfaction of having contributed something towards her enlightenment. In contrast, with the first approach, she would definitely be turned off by modern medicine and doctors.

No doubt, some conservative Muslims would take exception to this example. To them, I as a male have no business examining women’s breasts. Yes, my examining of breasts may seem like fondling to a layperson, but my niat or intention, is different. I am trying to save her life, a meritorious act by any standard or Holy Book, not gratifying my erotic senses.

I have little to add for the third group. It is not productive to engage them; it would just be a spitting contest (or pissing contest, in the colorful language of local cowboys). They simply would dismiss me as being under the spell of the “orientalists” and “deviationists.”

The surprise is that this attitude is also prevalent among Muslim intellectuals and scholars. Obviously they have not learned from their illustrious predecessors who eagerly learned from the Greeks, Romans and Hindus, and then went on to make their own seminal contributions. The likes of Ibn Sini were not at all bothered that they were learning from the infidels.

Another argument these modern ulama frequently advance is that their interpretations and translations are the only true and valid ones. All others are simply adulterations (bida’a) of our great faith. Their certitude merely betrays their arrogance, not to mention their intellectual shallowness.

They forget that all translations are at best approximate; they all involve some interpreting and editorializing.

Dealing with Rude Responses

I do get my share of rude and crude comments. I always respond courteously – initially. Invariably they reply with apologies. The old adage, goodwill begets more goodwill, works. There are exceptions, however. For those relatively few, the powerful click of the mighty mouse – delete – does wonders to my sanity and psyche!

Some of the most obnoxious and vulgar e-mails I get are from otherwise upright citizens, respected commentators, and seemingly pious ulama. Regardless, the mighty mouse does not care. They do not in any way detract me from continually striving to learn about my faith; hence this essay.

We Have Learned Nothing!

Saturday, October 8th, 2005

We Have Learned Nothing!

[Initially published in the Sun Weekend Edition, October 7, 2005]

This 2005-06 Federal Budget exposes one glaring reality: we have learned nothing from our experiences. We have yet to rationalize public expenditures and appreciate the proper role of government. We still have that civil-service mindset of solving a problem by throwing money at it.

With all the goodies for them, this budget is indeed by, of, and for civil servants. It reflects the increasing bureaucratization, which is a large factor in Malaysia’s declining competitiveness.

Our leaders repeatedly highlight two major issues: the quality of our human capital and inefficiencies of Government-linked companies (GLCs). Recognizing is only half of the problem; the other is correcting. This budget fails miserably at this.

Less than a quarter of the budget is for development, the rest simply operating expenses, with a huge chunk just for salaries. If one were to analyze the development budget separately, the same allocations prevail, that is, most of the funds are for salaries. Those poor kampong folks who risk their lives every day crossing rickety bridges, continue being careful!

The government has substantial allocations for education. By whatever criteria, Malaysia is already spending generously. Yet we have little to show for it.

As huge as the budget for education is, only slightly over a billion ringgit is for development of higher education. For a global perspective, that is about a quarter of UCLA’s annual budget!

After factoring the inevitable inefficiencies, with contracts doled out to favored contractors as with the schools’ computer projects, very little expansion will actually occur on our campuses.

The National Service gets RM 600M, again, all for operating expenses to feed and house the trainees, and pay their trainers. Get rid of it and use the funds to double the salaries of our professors. We then would likely recruit better professors who in turn would produce employable graduates.

We continue with the dichotomy of private and public education. We have yet to appreciate the immense benefits of complementing one with the other.

We permit private universities and colleges, but we have yet to integrate them in the overall policy. Now we have dangerous racial segregation in our universities. Academically too, there is segregation, with private institutions producing English-literate students and concentrating on marketable courses.

There is no private sector participation in the school system, except for preschool. The government encourages expansion of international schools by letting Malaysians enroll. That is less at increasing opportunities for locals, more on attracting foreigners with their cash, again reflecting the muddled thinking.

Allow private schools, local or foreign. That would relieve some of the burden. I would integrate them with the national policy, meaning, their enrolment must reflect the population, and their students, proficient in Malay. I could not care less if these schools use Swahili, but if they attract a broad spectrum of Malaysians, they must be offering something useful.

Malaysia cannot rid itself of its love affair with GLCs despite the many disappointments and exorbitant costs. This budget spawns many new GLCs. One, with the colossal price tag of RM 2B, will dabble in real estate, others in such risky ventures as biotechnology and agro-business. Since when have bureaucrats learned to farm?

These are merely initial costs; expect future expensive bailouts. GLCs have failed to make profits or prepare Bumiputras for the private sector. I would sell to the highest bidder the government’s stake in all GLCs and use the proceeds to reduce poverty and train and educate Bumiputras. That would be good for the market, economy, and Bumiputras.

There is also a provision in the budget for health tourism! Those private hospitals do not need the help or expertise of civil servants. Similarly, the posting of agricultural counselors abroad will not increase exports anymore than current educational attaches increase the number of foreign students. Those appointments are merely cushy foreign sojourns for civil servants.

The bloat in government continues. The budget does not address this, meaning, the government has yet to acknowledge the problem.

If the government were to focus on doing what are truly its basic functions, and leave the rest to the private sector, then it would learn to do them more effectively and efficiently. That is a simple lesson to learn; more difficult is to implement it.

Merdeka In All Its Manifestations

Monday, September 5th, 2005

Merdeka In All Its Manifestations

[Reposted from (September 4, 2005). This is an expanded version of the one published in the Merdeka supplement of the Sun]

As we celebrate Merdeka Day, we joyfully recall the events that led to it. It is equally important for us to ponder on what did not happen or could have happened. What took place was obvious; Malaysia gained her freedom from colonial rule. What did not take or could have taken place requires some reflection.

Unlike Independence Day celebrations of many nations, we do not have to pay tributes to slain warriors. Thanks to the wisdom of our earlier leaders, there were no “glorious” wars of independence and therefore no fallen heroes. Further, with many nations the dream of freedom quickly degenerated into a nightmare of national tragedies. Malaysia was thankfully spared such horrors.

Gandhi with his nonviolence philosophy humbled the mighty British into granting India its independence peacefully, but he could not tame his fellow citizens bent on massacring each other. The Indonesians fought hard for their independence, only to see their cherished freedom debauched by their egomaniacal president, Sukarno.

True Hero Of Our Independence

Our first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman held true to our prophetic tradition of the pen being mightier than the sword. He resorted to the negotiating table, not the battlefield, and enlisted lawyers not soldiers in our struggle for independence. Honoring fallen heroes of such wars as martyrs, national heroes, or freedom fighters does not lessen the pain their loved ones endure. We owe Tunku a massive debt of gratitude for sparing us such misfortune. He was truly the quiet and unsung hero of our independence.

This fact needs emphasizing, lest we forget. Already there are “revisionist” historians and other commentators intimidating that such an honor belongs to the likes of some obscure failed politicians and former thugs and terrorists. To me, the true hero is not the dashing rescuer who saved the drowning damsel, rather the young boy who kept his finger in the dike and thus prevented a flood.

Tunku went further. Whereas India and Indonesia degenerated into anarchy, Malaysia enjoyed a decade of peace and prosperity following independence. This led Tunku to boast that he was the “world’s happiest prime minister.” God later humbled him and the nation. The 1969 tragic race riot took place during his watch; it remains a blemish on our history.

If Tunku’s wisdom was in sparing us the dream from disintegrating into a nightmare, his successor’s genius was in giving substance to that collective dream. Tun Razak’s bold rural development schemes and imaginative economic initiatives gave Malaysians their greatest freedom – that from privation and poverty. Later, Dr. Mahathir drove development to greater heights, and equally greater excesses.

These leaders have done their part. It would take an even greater measure of genius and wisdom from today’s leaders to fulfill the promise of merdeka in all its facets.

Abridgment Of Our Merdeka

It would be a great irony and outright perversion if today’s leaders were to deprive Malaysians of their personal merdeka in the name of defending the nation’s freedom. Yet today hundreds are being incarcerated without being charged, let alone tried in court. The state has summarily stripped them of their precious rights as citizens and as human beings.

We do not respect nor honor the spirit of merdeka when we arbitrarily abridge the freedom of our citizens. The authorities crudely remind the citizens that they cannot read certain books, attend particular plays, or watch specific movies. For Muslims, the stricture is even narrower: Islam is what the government says it is; we deviate at our own earthly peril.

While lamenting the shortage of books written in Malay, these leaders do not hesitate in banning the works of Malay writers who dare express independent thought. The nation’s foremost thinker, Kassim Ahmad, had his Hadith: A Re-Evaluation banned. He also endured years of incarceration for his political views.

A sinister recent development is the intimidation of journalists through seizures of their computers, and the jailing of writers for what they write. Far from being intimidated, Malaysians continue to express themselves freely through other media, in particular, the Internet. That is a singular tribute to the ingenuity of Malaysians.

The attitude towards our best and brightest is no more enlightened. We want them to think and be creative, but we insist that they conform. Top positions in universities are given to pseudo academics whose chief function is to ensure that faculty members abide by Akujanji (a loyalty oath) rather than to their scholarly duties.

It would indeed be a perversion if not a great tragedy were we to be freed from the yoke of colonial oppression only to be subjugated and suppressed by our own kind. We are ever vigilant of threats from outside, we must remain equally wary of intrusions from within. The best of intentions and the noblest of motives do not prevent their perversion; the proverbial road to hell is paved with the best of intentions. I look askance at the restrictions placed on citizens all in the name of the “public good.”

Loss to the Nation

It is also a sad commentary when the cream of the younger generation leaves us; a loss we can hardly afford. It is even sadder when we fail to develop the young talent in our villages. That represents a double tragedy, for the individuals as well as the nation.

Today’s headlines carry unending tales of financial scandals and shenanigans, from approved permits for importing cars dispensed to cronies to the massive losses at government-linked companies. The waste is colossal. As staggering as that may be, an even far greater loss is the opportunity cost. Had we spent the resources on educating our young, building good schools, and training teachers, there would be no limit to the height of their – as well as the nation’s – achievements.

The first generation of leaders freed us from British rule; the next lifted us from privation and poverty. Tun Mahathir, the last leader, gave us economic freedom, albeit to the exclusion of other freedoms. The challenge for today’s leaders is to give us merdeka in all its manifestations.