Archive for the ‘Towards A Competitive Malaysia’ Category

I Found Al Ghazali In Dang Wangi

Friday, September 26th, 2008

Guest Commentary (Kickdefella):


Hi folks!

I am sorry for all the unreleased messages and comments on my blog ( As you know, I have been away on “holiday” in the lockup at the Balai Polis Kota Bharu and Dang Wangi. I had tried to check in at Pudu Prison as well but was turned away, presumably because I was not qualified enough!

As reporters rushed to shoot questions to me, I asked them, “Who is the prime minister?” One reporter for a television station smiled and replied, “Pak Lah lagi,” (still) I retorted, “Kalau macam tu saya nak masuk lokap baliklah…” (If that is the case then I would like to return to my lockup!). And of course I then turned away from them.

I thank you all for your prayers and kind support. The police had treated me well, and most of the time they went beyond their call of duty. I made many friends too!

I spent three Ramadan nights under custody in police lock-up. Yesterday, the night of my release, as I lay down on my bed as a free man, tears began flowing down my cheek for the first time since the death of my mum.

The moment I step into the lock-up in Kota Bharu District Police Station, at that moment all confusion subsided. I sat facing the wall all the time because I cannot bear looking at the other site where the ‘attach’ bathroom is.

I recited Hasbun-Allah-Wa-Ni’ma-Wakil and Ya-Malik-ul-Mulk Dzul-Jalal-Wal-Ikram all the time, taking breaks to perform my solat and solat sunnat. It was the most peaceful time I ever experienced. Those nights, living on the bare minimum, lying down on the unfinished cement, without any shirt to wrap me, yet I felt very warm. I felt complete.

It was an un-worldly moment. I felt no fear, no anger, and no remembrance of those I left behind. It was just me and … Him.

When I had fallen asleep, I could feel my mother and father, both of whom had left the cruel world, was there, smiling at me. It was the strangest experience, yet such a wonderful one.

On the last day in the Dang Wangi Police lock-up, I shared my feelings with the person in-charge of the lock-up. He looked at me and said that I felt that way because I was innocent. He was very apologetic and wished that I understood the nature of his work.

During my last Subuh prayer in the lock-up, I prayed to God that, if in His eye I was innocent, then please forgave those whom due to the call of duty had to do what they had to. I bore no grudges against them. When we met, we were strangers but we parted as friends.

For four days and three nights, I have been robbed of my rights as a citizen of this country, but nobody can rob from me the experience I have had during those times.

Abdullah’s regime could only take the freedom from my body but it could never take the heaven from my heart, for God alone is sufficient for us. He is the disposer of affairs. He is the eternal owner of sovereignty, the Lord of majesty and bounty.

I knew on the day I was arrested that the police would on the following Tuesday arrest another Malaysian whom the Government claimed had insulted the SONG, and today I knew they were looking for another Malaysian blogger who was still flying the flag up-side down. I also know that those two persons are just victims of Abdullah’s struggle for political survivor. I pray for them to be strong. This is just the beginning for us, but rest assured that it is the end for Abdullah!

I will arrange a press conference later today. Till then, rest assured, I have kick Dollah again as soon as I was released. You can ask the press.

Salaam and love,



Towards A Competitive Malaysia #60

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008

Chapter 9: Institutions Matter (Cont’d)

Property and Contract Rights

[Note: This installment was initially posted on June 18, 2008 but it was lost, together with the accompanying readers’ comments, when my website was disrupted. I am reposting it here.]

If we plot the pace of economic development over time, the remarkable finding would be that economic progress within the last hundred years far overshadowed all previous developments over human history. Scrutinizing the graph further, we would note the paucity of economic activities during feudal times.11

If we were to plot the pace of development across societies within the last century, we would have an equally interesting finding. Countries that adopted capitalism or market-oriented policies (Western Europe, the Anglo Saxon world, Northeast Asia) made remarkable economic progress, while others (Africa, Latin America, the Soviet empire, Arab world) remained stagnant. The graphs of this second group of countries resemble those of medieval Europe.

Capitalism involves not only the trading of goods and services between people but also freedom and democracy. People are free to pursue trade. Medieval Europe did not progress because there was very little trading among the citizens, only among the lords. When the lords were not engaged in trading, they were preoccupied with trying to get by force what the other lords had, that is engaging in wars, a destructive and economically non-productive pursuit.

There was little trading among the peasants because they had no rights to their property or labor, hence they could not exchange or barter it. Even their bodies belonged to their lords. If there were some enterprising peasants who could engage in raising crops and animals on the side when they were not serving their lords, those peasants risked losing them all to their greedy lords. A definite disincentive!

For society to progress, its citizens must be free to engage in the exchange of goods and services. The farmer must be able to exchange his excess rice for a hoe from the artisan. In this way the farmer gets to cultivate more land and produce more rice, and the artisan now has the energy to produce even more hoes and other implements. Both benefit from the exchange. Multiply such exchanges a thousand times, and you get progress on a societal scale.

Before such exchanges could take place, another condition must exist. The farmer must have confidence that the hoe rightly belongs to the artisan, and the artisan in turn must be certain that the rice is rightly the farmer’s to sell. There must be clearly delineated property rights.

The Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto in his book, The Mystery of Capital, argues that capitalism fails in the Third World precisely because there is no respect for property rights, especially by those in power.12 In the old days it was the sultans who grabbed the peasants’ prized buffaloes; today it is a ruthless dictator seizing a flourishing enterprise. Even educated leaders are not free from this feudal lord mentality. Armed with their Cambridge law degree they would expropriate land belonging to the people without proper compensation under the precept of “eminent domain” or some other arcane legal doctrine, as happened in Singapore to land belonging to the Malay minority. Regardless of mechanism, the results are the same: the trampling of property rights.

We can appreciate property rights when they apply to tangible assets like land and property. Before you buy a piece of land you must be sure that the owner really owns it, and that after paying, the land would then belong to you. There must be reliable institutions to record these transactions to prevent that land from being simultaneously bought and sold by different parties. There would be unending chaos were that to happen. Resources would be consumed untangling the mess instead of devoting to economic activities.

Malaysia’s land office, the agency responsible for recording titles, is a mess. The process of transferring title that would take a few days in California would consume months if not years in Malaysia. There have been cases where the transfers were never recorded, giving rise to unending conflicts.

Property rights extend beyond tangible assets. If I were to discover a new way to plant rice efficiently, I should reap the gains of my discovery. Others who wish to benefit from it should compensate or at least share with me their added bounty. This is not only fair but would also encourage others to partake in new discoveries. If others simply sponge off on my discovery without compensating me, the damage would be as if they had stolen my property.

In the Third World there is rampant stealing of intellectual property. When Sheila Majid records her beautiful songs, and others freely bootleg them, they too are stealing from her.

Intellectual property rights and patent laws are especially important in the K-economy. On one hand are the concerns of innovators and creative talent that their contributions be adequately rewarded; on the other are the scientists and intellectuals who fear that too rigid enforcements would stifle innovation and research. New knowledge and technical innovations do not arise out of the blue; they are incremental, building upon existing knowledge, products and processes. Too restrictive a protection of intellectual rights would inhibit the diffusion and creation of new knowledge, and thus progress. The challenge is in striking a balance.

Property rights should also extend to the rights we have over the fruits of our own labor. Slavery and indentured labor represent the ultimate loss of these rights, and those practices are rightly condemned in civilized societies.

One would think that if we use slaves—free labor—costs would be lowered and profits correspondingly increased. Not so! China seems determined to resurrect the economics of slavery by using forced prison labor. Thus far none of the Chinese enterprises are world leaders either in quality or price. Companies like Microsoft and IBM that pay their workers handsomely produce premium products.

There is another economic aspect to paying workers well. Henry Ford intuitively knew this when he set about to lower the prices of his cars and simultaneously raise the pay of his workers so they could be among his best customers.

One aspect of property rights often overlooked is what ecologist Garrett Hardins termed the “tragedy of the commons.”13 He used the example of the free grazing of cattle on public land, a common practice in western United States. If every rancher were to think only of maximizing his own profit, he or she would simply increase the number of cows. That would not involve much additional cost, as the land is communally owned. However, if every rancher were to do likewise, soon the whole land would be overgrazed to the point of ecological disaster. Everyone would then lose—hence the tragedy of the commons. As the land belonged to everyone (publicly owned), it did not belong to anyone, and no one took responsibility caring for it.

The fallacy of socialism is exactly this. With the state owning everything, no one bothers to take care of anything. If something does not belong to you, you do not have the sense of pride of ownership, and behave accordingly. This is encapsulated in the pithy wisdom that no one ever washes a rented car. The wisdom of capitalism is this recognition of private property.

I recently visited a senior civil servant living in one of the old-style palatial government bungalows in a secluded area of Kuala Lumpur. He had been there for decades, yet in all that time he did not plant a single flower, fruit tree, or in any way tried to enhance the landscaping. The reason? The property was not his, even though he would get to enjoy the fruits of his labor. As for cutting the lawn, he depended on the Public Works Department even if that meant enduring overgrown weeds!

That civil servant’s behavior is no different from the tenant dwellers of the Council flats of Liverpool or public housing projects of Southside Chicago. They have no pride of ownership. Margaret Thatcher tried to eradicate this destructive mentality with her policy of selling those units to their dwellers, that is, encouraging private property ownership.

Related to and an integral part of property rights are contract rights, the freedom of individuals to enter into a contract with one another.14 This does not mean anyone can enter into any contract with anyone to do anything. There are issues of ethics, religious norms, and public good to observe. The freedom to enter into a contractual agreement with my fellow citizen does not extend to allowing my selling my kidney to him. It is for society, and thus the political institutions, to set such limits. In India such contracts are apparently quite legitimate.

Regardless, when people trade goods and services, such exchanges are often transacted over days if not months or years. There is the element of promise and trust. A homeowner may enter into contract with a builder over constructing a new house. The contract may specify terms and conditions that have to be executed by each party. If there is no mechanism to enforce and honor such contracts, there will be chaos. No meaningful trade could take place under such circumstances. Even under the best of conditions, disagreements do arise; hence the importance of having a fair, honest and inexpensive system to resolve them.

The K-economy, with its global and instantaneous connectivity, have changed the dynamics of intellectual property rights and put a new twist to the tragedy of the commons. ICT has transformed markets with the democratization and decentralization of information. In the medieval era, information was the exclusive preserve of the clergy; that was also the way the clergy effectively controlled the flock. The printing press upended all that. With the masses now literate and reading materials readily available, the controls wielded by the clergy soon gave way. That did more to end feudalism and brought in democracy and capitalism.

Capitalism’s success brings its own problems. With news and information now increasingly controlled by big media corporations, we are reverting to medieval times with corporate chieftains replacing the clergy. Their stranglehold seems unassailable, as the economic barriers for new players are prohibitive. While it would take only a few thousand dollars to start a newspaper a hundred years ago, today that figure would be in the hundreds of millions.

The good news is that ICT, specifically the Internet, is again upending the status quo. Today I am reaching more readers through my website and other Internet outlets like Malaysiakini and Malaysia-Today than when I was writing for the mainstream papers.

ICT is challenging traditional economics and business models with its decentralization, diffusion (thus lack of control), open platform, and open-source software. Linux, started by volunteers spontaneously collaborating via the Internet, is fast challenging Microsoft Explorer. Google is offering its most important and most widely used product, its search engine, for free. Wikipedia, again free with its contents contributed voluntarily by millions worldwide, is more widely used than the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica. And the latter is a subscription service! Wikipedia is as reliable as the Britannica at least with respect to its science entries, according to the journal, Nature.15

Whether such successes would herald a new way of doing business to challenge or even complement the traditional capitalist model remains to be seen.16

Next: Judicial System

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #34

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

Chapter 6 Great Nation, Great Leaders (Cont’d)

Malaysian Leadership

The political leadership of Malaysia is in Malay hands; consequently there is a strong influence of Malay culture.

In traditional Malay society, the government (kerajaan), despite its seemingly formal structure of rulers and ministers, had in reality no effective power. Those officials were essentially royal courtiers, not administrators. The Malay Negara, according to the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, was a theater state, with little resemblance to the modern political state as we know it. Court and state officials were merely playing their role as in a sandiwara or theater. To say that the traditional Malay bendahara (prime minister), menteri (minister), and laksamana (admiral or defense minister) are the equivalent of their modern counterparts, as the literal translations would imply, involves considerable “concept stretching.” Operationally, they bore no resemblance to the political leaders of a modern state. Or to quote Geertz’s elegantly succinct prose, “their energies were parochial and ambitions cosmic.”21

Traditional Malay leaders did not lead; on the contrary they served more as icons for the peasants to revere, much like the idols and statues representing the deity that are common in Hindu households. Hinduism was the prevailing pre-Islamic Malay culture. Consequently the peasants could easily transfer their allegiance from those lifeless idols to the real live sultans and their courtiers.

These peasants implicitly believed in their leaders; it is a matter of faith, much like their belief on those idols. If those peasants did not show sufficient reverence, those sultans, like the gods on the altar, could unleash their wrath on those poor hapless villagers. This is still the belief and concept Malays have of their leaders.

Malays believe that their leaders—especially the sultans—are divinely ordained to rule; they have daulat (mandate from God). The sultans in turn behave accordingly, they consider themselves as God’s representatives on earth. Malays venerate their sultans and attribute mystical powers and God-like authority to them—rahmat. Sultans can do no wrong, and of course their every whims must be attended to, for like God, there would be hell to pay should the peasants “diss” or in any show disrespect for their Gods and sultans.

In my book With Love, From Malaysia, I related an incident while assisting in the surgery of one of the sultanahs (the sultan’s official, in contrast to ‘unofficial,’ wife).22 I was shaving her scalp and was about to throw the clippings into the garbage can (as I do with all patients’ hair) when I felt a sudden powerful grip on my wrist directing it to a yellow shawl on a silver tray. I let go of the clippings and the royal nurse then carefully folded the shawl and solemnly with great ceremony took it away. To her (and other Malays), that hair had divine attributes.

It is not surprising that this mysticism, of being specially selected by God, would percolate down to the lowly village headman. Prime Minster Tunku Abdul Rahman once related how as a junior district officer in Kedah, he met a village palm reader who predicted that the young Tunku would one day lead his nation. Similarly when Abdullah Badawi became prime minister, the newspapers highlighted how his great grandfather, a religious teacher (another leader in Malay society presumed to have mystical abilities), predicted a great future for his newborn great grandson. The surprise is that the Malay masses in this 21st century still believe in such silly lore.

We all have had our palms read and future predicted at carnivals and the like, but we never took that seriously.

Malay leaders purposely do not discourage this legend and myth making. Though it would be considered blasphemous were they to claim any divine calling, nonetheless they encourage through their deeds, ceremonies and pronouncements that they too have wahyu—divine radiance. Thus when they visit their constituencies, there are always many hangers-on ready with their umbrellas to protect these leaders, together with the ceremonial sprinkling of holy water and flower petals. Of course the peons and peasants would bow low, grovel themselves in the most humiliating and degrading way, and then top it off by kissing the leader’s hand.

At least Malays are not as bad as the Thais. As seen in the movie, The King and I, they had to prostrate themselves on the floor when approaching their king, and then awkwardly retreat in the same fashion.

The current tradition within UMNO that its two top leaders not be challenged has less to do with threats to party unity and stability, as its leaders ceaselessly remind the membership, but everything to do with reinforcing this illusion of being divinely destined, and therefore not to be challenged by mere mortals. Thus Malays rarely question their leaders; that would be akin to questioning one’s god or idol. The leaders encourage this attitude; hence Mahathir’s wrath on those Malays who dared question his leadership. Even supposedly modern Malays tend to deify their leaders, both the royal and non-royal variety. In late 2006 when Mahathir lobbed those stinging criticisms at Prime Minister Abdullah, his (Abdullah’s) ministers instinctively rallied around him. Much to his chagrin, Mahathir found himself “blacked out” by the government-controlled mainstream media despite the fact that he was a popular and highly effective Prime Minister for over 22 years.

Many sultans today are appointed to be chancellors (titular head) of public universities. Observe how the senior academic staff, men with impressive PhDs from modern western universities, genuflect and grovel themselves in front of these sultans. A simple handshake would not do it when greeting these royal visitors. No! One has to bow down low, clasp one’s hands together bringing them to the forehead, and then only would one dare shake the royal hand. That still would not be enough, now one has to also kiss it!

With leaders expecting to be treated like gods and the masses obligingly feeding that illusion, little wonder that this vicious cycle is difficult to break. Even lowly village heads expect to be treated like mini sultans. In the classrooms, especially in Islamic Studies, the teachers too want to be so treated; anything less would be considered disrespectful. Hence there are few discussions; asking a question would be viewed as being disrespectful. Religious teachers have been known to chant Arabic mumbo jumbo (purportedly readings from the Quran) in order to cast a spell on wayward students. Not that it would do any good.

Malay leaders do not serve their subjects; instead they expect to be served. In classical Malay literature, all the sultans had to do was to merely sound the gong, and the villagers would all stop what they were doing and rush to the palace inquiring what it was their sultan wanted of them.23 Today’s Malay leaders are no different, endlessly exhorting their followers to do their (leaders’) bidding. Sadly, this pattern is entrenched among today’s Malay leaders, a phenomenon I refer to as the Sultan Syndrome: leaders behaving as detached figureheads rather than engaged executives.

Abdullah Badawi, like the first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, exhibited this sultan syndrome very early in his tenure. Mahathir too exhibited this tendency, but towards the end of his term. These leaders set an unfortunate pattern for the citizens. The sultan syndrome is rampant in the civil service; no surprise as the service is essentially a Malay institution.

There is no problem with having a symbolic or titular head as long as you have capable executives under you. Tunku successfully played the role of sultan while being prime minister because he had as his deputy the very able Tun Razak. Tun effectively ran the country while Tunku received all the credit.

I read somewhere that such a system also operates at embassies of the old Soviet empire. The ambassador was only the symbolic head while his number two (the Chef de Mission) was actually in charge and wielded all the power and decision making. In that way the ambassador could get himself drunk at parties or otherwise involve himself in embarrassing behaviors, but the state secrets would not be compromised.24 Ingenious idea!

In the Malaysian public service however, there is no capable number two to be the effective executive running the show. All the underlings are busy being mini sultans in their own little bureaucratic fiefdom. Hence the whole administrative system collapses, and nothing gets done.

Next: Leadership In The Era of Globalization

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #33

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

Chapter 6: Great Nations Great Leaders (Cont’d)

Concept of Co-Leader

Early in his tenure while he was still contemplating selecting his deputy, I suggested that Abdullah Badawi ignore tradition and go beyond the then existing UMNO Vice presidents and choose someone whose skills and experience would complement his. My choice was Tengku Razaleigh. He would bring his vast experience in business and finance, precisely the areas Abdullah is sorely lacking. Abdullah should do what George Bush, Jr., did in picking Richard Cheney as his running mate. By doing so Bush acknowledged his limitations. The experienced Cheney, by reasons of age and health, could not possibly succeed or challenge Bush. Similarly, Razaleigh, by virtue of his age, would unlikely challenge or succeed Abdullah.

I suggested that Tengku Razaleigh not be treated as the traditional deputy, meaning, someone always deferring to the boss and patiently awaiting his turn. Rather he should be considered as an associate or co-Prime Minster, fully using his talent and experience for the good of the nation.

This is a tricky proposition, for the ship of state can have but one skipper. Poorly handled and with the wrong personal chemistry mix, it could result in continuous conflict. Malaysia had been through the disastrous Mahathir-Anwar rivalry. Skillfully managed however, the nation would benefit from the complement of talent and experience of its two most seasoned leaders.

Such co-leadership is common in my profession. Modern surgery is increasingly complex, requiring the skills and contributions from various specialists. Take breast cancer. Often patients want the curative cancer surgery combined with reconstructive procedures to minimize the psychological trauma. This requires the combined and complementary skills of both the general and plastic surgeons. Such instances of co-surgeons operating on the same patient simultaneously are becoming increasingly common. Yes, differences of opinions do arise, but they are resolved through discussions and compromises, always keeping uppermost the patient’s best interest. There is no place in today’s highly complex operating suites for prima donnas strutting imperiously and expecting everyone to kow tow to them.

We see similar co-leadership arrangements in big corporations. Microsoft has Bill Gates as its Chairman, and Steve Ballmer, the chief executive. You do not see them scheming to topple one another or jostling to grab the limelight. They are both confident of their own considerable abilities. Besides, they have enough on their own plate without having to bother the other.

As William Bennis observed, “Co-Leadership is not a fuzzy-minded buzzword designed to make non-CEOs feel better about themselves and their workplaces. Rather it is a tough-minded strategy that will unleash the hidden talent in any enterprise. Above all co-leadership is inclusive, not exclusive.”3

If nothing else, having a co-leader would take care of the immediate succession issue. Yes, it would take an exceptional individual to be willing to play the acknowledged second fiddle, just as it would take an equally exceptional leader to accept someone as equally capable as he is to share the podium. The personal and professional chemistry of both individuals must be right and compatible.

Bennis identifies three groups of individuals who would fit the co-leader role. First would be the “fast trackers,” talented subordinates fast on their way up, as Tun Razak was to Tunku. Second would be “backtrackers,” former chiefs who have willingly downshifted. The classic example of this was Chou En-Lai giving up the leadership of the Chinese Red Army to a gifted junior officer, Mao Zedong. Third would be the “on-trackers,” individuals who are just not interested in the top slot. They are content with their present position. Tengku Razaleigh would have been a good example, had Abdullah chosen him.

Had Abdullah picked Tengku Razaleigh, Abdullah would have strengthened his leadership team. With their combined strength and integrity, they could have revamped the cabinet and together groomed the next generation of leaders. At the very least, with Razaleigh at his side, Abdullah would not look overwhelmed with all the problems. One sure way for a leader to lose his or her effectiveness is to appear beleaguered.

As events later proved (in particular Mahathir’s relentless criticisms of Abdullah’s leadership that came out in the open in late 2006), Abdullah was then under considerable pressure from Mahathir to name Najib Razak as Deputy Prime Minister. Unfortunately both Abdullah and Najib have no love or much respect for each other. More importantly, each does not bring any complementary quality to the top leadership team. By late 2006, both looked pathetic in the face of criticisms from Mahathir and others.

Next: Malaysian Leadership

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #30

Wednesday, November 7th, 2007

Chapter 6:  Great Nation, Great Leaders  (Cont’d)

The Orchestra Conductor

The orchestra conductor model is seen beyond the symphony hall, more typically in academia and research institutes. In a roomful of accomplished individuals, you do not have to shout to be heard. You will be heard clearly even when you whisper if you have something important to say. People follow you because they want to, not because they have to. In an orchestra, all the musicians are talented and accomplished. They do not need a conductor to perform; they could do that on their own. Early in the last century, inspired by Marx’s ideals of the classless society, there was a movement towards a conductor-less orchestra. Even in those instances they still needed someone to at least keep the timing.

The conductor brings out the best of his or her musicians so together they could put on a superb performance. He or she serves more than just as a human metronome, rather to bring his (or her) unique interpretation to the composition. The conductor is “above all, … a leader of men,” as noted by Schonberg in his The Great Conductors. “His subjects look to him for guidance. He is at once a father image, the great provider, the fount of inspiration, the Teacher who knows all.”15 The relationship between musicians and conductor is based on mutual respect and understanding. A good conductor makes the orchestra perform beyond what it thinks it is capable. Equally important, an orchestra of able musicians could do better without a conductor than with a bad one.

This leadership is seen in modern hospitals and other complex organizations. My hospital went through a series of temporary CEOs, yet it ran smoothly as we were all professionals. To be effective and perform beyond the ordinary however, a hospital must have effective leadership.

This point in leadership was well understood by President Reagan. He appointed capable and seasoned individuals to his cabinet, and then let them have their way. This was in marked contrast to his immediate predecessor, Jimmy Carter. He too had an equally talented cabinet, but he felt the need to micromanage them. Reagan was reelected; Carter was a one-term president.

I would schematize this leadership model as a series of boxes (the followers) arranged circumferentially around a central hub (the leader), with a series of arrows going both ways between the center and the periphery, as well as between the elements in the periphery. If the military leadership were a pyramid and the coaching style a block with a gentle sloping roof, then a symphony model leadership would be a bicycle wheel.

The communications in an orchestra are intricate; the musicians and conductor depend on each other for feedback. Players in the wind section have to hear and be sensitive to as well as react to the brass section. The conductor serves as the overall guide.

The orchestra musicians are highly talented; they are proud of their skills. Yet there is remarkable absence of power struggle. The first violinist does not aspire or scheme to be the assistant, and later, conductor. She is not sitting by coyly in the wings plotting the downfall of the conductor so she could ascend to the podium. She is content and proud being the first violinist, thank you very much. She may occasionally indulge the conductor into letting her be the soloist. Yet with such seemingly informal structure, the orchestra performs complex operations flawlessly.

This model of leadership is rare in politics. The predictable drama is for the number two (or anyone else for that matter) challenging the leader. Unlike in an orchestra, it is rare in politics to have a team of highly talented individuals, each able to stand on his own. The typical pattern is for the leader to appoint only his supporters and cronies, and they in turn are beholden to the leader.

Nonetheless when we have an orchestra-like political team, the results can be phenomenal. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal team was one.16  In Canada, there was Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s cabinet in the 1960s. Roosevelt proved that government, properly harnessed, could be a force for the betterment of society. He gave hope to a society crushed by the Depression, and later under a very different set of challenges, led his nation to victory in World War II.

Up north, Pearson with his considerable skills as a former diplomat, successfully healed the deep fissure between Canada’s two founding nations—English and French—in time to celebrate its bicentennial in1967 in rousing unity. He convinced Canadians that they would be far better off remaining united instead of splitting. He did it not through military fiat or using the bully pulpit of his office, rather by coaxing and appealing to the best qualities of his people, just as a symphony conductor would of his musicians.17

Pearson’s Bilingual and Bicultural (B&B) Commission was also a rare demonstration on the effective use of committees and commissions. All too often such bodies are used more for avoiding decisions and ducking responsibilities, typically exemplified by Abdullah Badawi’s Royal Commission on the Police.

Leaders like Roosevelt and Pearson assembled a team of highly talented men and women, individuals of strong will and great accomplishments. They were not wallflowers; they spoke their mind freely. Consequently, their cabinets often resembled a team of wild cats, each going their separate ways. To the uninformed they may appear chaotic and disorganized, but the important key was that they accomplished great missions. That in the end is the hallmark of a great leader, and equally, his great team.

Next:  The Holistic Leader

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #29

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

Chapter 6: Great Nation, Great Leaders (Cont’d)

The Coaching Model

Today’s workers, especially in the developed world, have far superior skills in language, science, and mathematics. Many, especially in high-tech and biotech, are college graduates. They are officer material, not raw recruits. The drill sergeants would have to give way to the officer candidate school’s instructors, with different sets of skills and means of motivation. Enter the coaching style of leadership.

Coaches decide which players to keep, and when or if they can play. Coaches bring the best out of their players and ensure that they fit well with the rest of the team. Coaches do not train players in the manner that head mechanics train novice technicians. They do not train but sharpen and develop the talent and ability of their players.

Coaches are themselves former players; however, the best players do not necessarily make the best coaches. The two require different sets of skills and talent. Coaches lead the team, yet in terms of pay and public recognition, they often play second fiddle to their star players. Even the most celebrated coaches are best remembered for their marquee players.

When the players shine, there is a sense of reflected glory on the part of their coaches. This after all is what they are trying to achieve, consequently they do not envy or resent their players’ achievements.

The coaching leadership style attracts many personality types, including authoritarian ones. This leadership style is not exclusive to sports but is seen in not-for-profit organizations, academic and research institutions, and in firms of professionals (lawyers and accountants). In the corporate world, CEOs are increasingly acting more as coaches rather than as military leaders.

Unlike the rigid pyramidal command-and-control structure of the military, with few generals and admirals, few more colonels and majors, and a whole lot of captains and lieutenants, the coaching model has a flattened hierarchy, basically only two or three layers—coaches, assistant coaches, and players; a block with a gentle-sloped roof rather than a pyramid.

Like platoon commanders, coaches exert their control on their followers directly. They are there on the sideline during practice and at games. The communications are direct, and so are the feedbacks.

Bill Walsh, the winning coach of the San Francisco Forty-Niners professional football team, related that the most important part of his coaching job was to recruit new talent, and when he found one, to develop it. A crucial aspect to developing new talent was to ensure that he was not being overshadowed by existing players, the mighty oak stunting new saplings. Walsh had to let go many seasoned players well before their time because he felt that their presence inhibited the development of new talent.13 It would take an extremely confident coach to do this; it is counterintuitive. The usual tendency is to stick with your proven players rather than to try the new and untried.

Tun Razak increasingly assumed the coaching style of leadership after he settled the 1969 riot. He was unique in that he successfully made the smooth transition from being a military leader in the aftermath of the riot to the coach-like prime minister of a democracy. Many leaders cannot successfully make such transitions.

Tun Razak exhibited other unique qualities. He inherited a tired and less-than-talented cabinet from his predecessor, so he actively sought new talent. The political structure in UMNO then (like today) did not encourage the emergence of new talent, so he bypassed the system. He went outside of politics; from the civil service he recruited such seasoned leaders as Ghazali Shafie and Chong Hon Nam; from the private sector, Tengku Razaleigh. Under his tutelage, they scaled even greater heights. Abdullah Ahmad, Tun’s Special Assistant, went on to complete his studies at Cambridge and later became Mahathir’s Special Ambassador to the United Nations.

Tun Razak demonstrated his coaching style in other ways. When the tradition-bound civil service stymied his ambitious development plans, he did two things. First he hired an American management consultant (Milton Esman) to revamp the service.14 He could not possibly fire the entire civil service, so he decided to enhance its professionalism through extensive training. He sent young officers who had not quite yet acquired the bad habits of the civil service to graduate schools abroad. He initiated formal in-house training for fresh recruits instead of letting them loose to be trained haphazardly on the job. He realized that the civil service was incapable of executing his policies; yet needless criticism would simply undermine the organization.

His other bold strategy was to bypass completely the civil service. When bureaucrats stalled his policies, he created extra-governmental bodies to effectively bypass obscurantist civil servants. Thus was born the Government-linked companies (GLCs).

Like a good coach, Tun Razak first recruited fresh talent, and then groomed them to be developed fully and not be overshadowed by the old timers, the same strategy that Bill Walsh used so successfully a decade later with his San Francisco team.

Malaysians were ready for the Tun’s coaching style because they were becoming better educated and more confident. He was also sufficiently flexible to adapt to the changes he saw in his followers. In short, Tun Razak’s leadership style was flexible; it was equipped with the metaphorical adjustable flaps.

Next: The Orchestra Conductor

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #28

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

Chapter 6:  Great Nation, Great Leaders  (Cont’d)

The Military Model in Industry

The military model was widely adopted in industry until recently. The impetus was the insight of the industrial psychologist, Frederick Taylor. He analyzed the details of manufacturing, and suggested that by having workers do the same repetitive component work, they could consistently deliver quality and increase output. Instead of the group collectively producing a car, as craftsmen had been doing for ages, we now have one bending the sheet metal, another welding, and a third fastening the parts. Thus was born the assembly line, and with it the phenomenal leap in productivity.10

It enabled Henry Ford to produce cars affordable even to his workers. Workers could be easily trained and monitored by their managers. Their output too could be readily measured; workers could no longer slack off. Even simpletons could now do complex manufacturing jobs as they were divided into a series of simple, reproducible motions.

The underlying assumption of this management theory is that workers must be treated like military recruits. They have no particular joy in doing the mind-numbing work; they must be regimented and continuously monitored, and their jobs reduced to endless repetition such that the quality is consistent and reliable. Their managers too act like military officers, ensuring that the mission is accomplished. This model served American businesses well until the 1980s. Through it, America was able to turn illiterate immigrants and freed slaves into productive factory workers. Today this model is still operative in factories of multinationals in the Third World. These workers can do sophisticated factory work despite their lack of education.

Come the 1980s, Japan clobbered America by putting out quality products at lower prices. “Made in Japan” no longer meant shoddy products or a ready one-liner for standup comics, rather a symbol of quality and value.

American managers were forced to study Japanese management to see what those Orientals were doing right. What the Americans found surprised them. They had this image of the Japanese being a regimented and militaristic society, the residue of World War II images. Instead, the Japanese factory floor was remarkably democratic and unregimented. There was no obvious distinction between workers and supervisors; they all worked collaboratively. They even ate in the same cafeteria. And the wonder of wonders, there was no adversarial relationship between workers and managers.


While American factories face periodic strikes and other labor disputes, Japanese factories were spared such turmoil. The Japanese actually enjoyed their work! Up until the 1980s the prevailing model of management in America had been the military one:  the Theory X model.(11) Managers treated their workers as someone unreliable and uninterested in their work. They had to be regimented and monitored at all times lest they goofed off. They were not to be trusted. The assembly line was meant to keep them on their prescribed pattern. This numbing routine of the assembly line is well chronicled in Alex Hailey’s novel, Wheels.(12)

The Japanese subscribe to Theory Y management. Workers are treated with respect and assumed to have pride in their work. They have as much to contribute to the quality of the final product as the managers and designers. While American managers subscribe to the military model of leadership, the Japanese were into the coaching or even symphony conductor style.

Today it is easy to scorn the American authoritarian style. It is well to remember that the model served the nation well for nearly a century. It was responsible for the mass production and thus affordability of much of today’s consumer goods. It brought into the middle class a generation of hitherto low-skilled and lowly educated citizens. That ought to count for something.

With American workers so much more educated today, that old model is no longer effective or productive.

Next;  The Coaching Model

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #26

Wednesday, October 10th, 2007

Chapter 6:  Great Nation, Great Leaders (Cont’d)

Evolution and Patterns of Leadership

Leadership to an organization is like wings to a plane. Without wings planes cannot fly; likewise there cannot be an organization without a leader. Wings also define and limit the performance of the plane, likewise leaders to their organization.

Early biplanes had twin-deck wings that effectively doubled the lift. With stronger engines and planes flying faster, that design creates too much drag for the lift. It became the limiting factor, and the design gave way to the single pair of wings fitted with adjustable flaps at the leading and trailing edges so the curvature could be adjusted to effect maximal lift at low speed and then flattened out to reduce drag while cruising.

With more powerful jet engines and even faster speed that design too proved inadequate. Thus emerged the backswept wings, but still with adjustable flaps, as seen with modern jets. With supersonic planes, we have delta wings that could be retracted. With the extreme speed of rockets and missiles, only winglets are needed.

So it is with leadership. Just as the optimal wing design is related to the rest of the plane, the optimal leader must relate to his followers (people), culture, and geography. Enlightened followers choose enlightened leaders; bad followers choose and follow toxic leaders. “Leadership,” wrote Jean Lipman-Blumen in her book The Allure of Toxic Leaders, “is the interaction between leaders and their followers.”1

When a society is undeveloped and citizens unsophisticated (the societal equivalent of the early biplane), it needs a leader who is a strict disciplinarian and could command instant respect. Personal charisma is the major ingredient. This style of leadership is exemplified by the drill sergeant major who could whip out a bunch of rag-tag village bums into spic-and-span recruits after only a few months of boot camp. This was the style of dictators like Indonesia’s Sukarno and South Korea’s Pak. They brooked no questions from their followers; that would be viewed as insubordination or worse, sedition, and treated as such. Sukarno destroyed and imprisoned many Indonesian intellects and luminaries who dared disagree with him.

Once those recruits become officers, a different style of leadership is needed. The yelling drillmaster would definitely be out of place at the officers’ candidate school.

I discern at least three patterns of leadership: the military model, the coaching style, and that of an orchestra conductor. These models do not necessarily evolve in stepwise fashion from one to the other, or that one is superior to the other. A newly emerging nation may benefit most from a military style leader; this style is also best suited when the nation is faced with a sudden challenge or crisis, as in war or civil turmoil. India at the time of its independence would have benefited from a military leader instead of the symphony conductor style of Mahatma Gandhi. That would have spared the subcontinent its horrendous tragedy.

These three models attract varying personality traits; even within a model we have variations. To every imperious and charismatic general like Douglas Mac Arthur and George Patton, there are others more cerebral and equally winning. Major-General Mahmud Sulaiman, the man credited with the final and decisive push to rid remnants of the Malaysian communist insurgency in the late 1970s, posed a professorial profile.2 He could have been just as comfortable on a university campus leading graduate seminars as leading his troops in the jungle. Mahmud Sulaiman was a military leader simply because he was commanding soldiers, but his style and demeanor was more of the symphony conductor.

The two Third World leaders—Indonesia’s Sukarno and India’s Mahatma Gandhi—could not be more different, yet both successfully led their nations to independence using very different techniques. Sukarno, with his charisma and oratorical skills, mobilized his countrymen in armed insurrection against the Dutch. Gandhi, using the very opposite technique of non-violence, shamed the British for not living up to their ideals. The end results too were radically different. Sukarno successfully unified the polyglot islands of the East Indies; Gandhi was in charge when that subcontinent fractured violently along sectarian lines. Gandhi was successful because he was dealing with the British, with their fine and civilized sense of justice. Had he been dealing with Stalin, history would never have heard of Gandhi, again illustrating the importance of the dynamics of the relationships rather than individual personalities.

Warren Bennis in his studies on leadership found more diversities than commonalities among effective leaders: left-brain and right-brain thinkers, articulate as well as taciturn ones, immaculate dressers versus casual Dockers types, and the John Waynes as well as the Jimmy Stewarts.3

Bennis found that effective leaders demonstrate competencies in four key areas. One, they are able to draw others to their cause. President Kennedy demonstrated this best; he attracted the best and brightest from academia, business, and the professions to his administration. Such leaders effectively communicate the essence of their cause. Reagan was also in this class. He was rightly called the Great Communicator for his skills in bringing his ideas, goals and dreams to the people. They all wanted to follow him to the shining city on the hill; they believed him when he declared that it was “a new morning in America.” He used concrete examples and colorful metaphors when delivering his messages. Reagan was able to communicate effectively because he knew who he was, what he believed in, and where he wanted to go.

This is the leadership style of great prophets. The hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) are full of allegories, parables, and similes. They help concretize his message.

Doris Kearns in her book on Abraham Lincoln, A Team of Rivals, elucidated yet another unique characteristic of a great leader: the ability to co-opt the best talent to your team even if they were initially your rivals, as Lincoln did.4 This is the ultimate mark of self-confidence. Had Mahathir retained Tengku Razaleigh in his cabinet after their closely contested UMNO presidential elections of 1987, Mahathir would not only have gained a considerable talent but also spared fracturing UMNO. It would have also served as an important model for healthy competition. Because that crucial lesson was not learned then, there is still a problem today with contesting top positions in UMNO.

This ability to attract the talented to your cause is most crucial. Leadership is never a one-man show. Islam successfully spread beyond Arabia after the prophet’s death because he was able to recruit able lieutenants in the persons of the Rightly Guided Companions, later to be Caliphs.

Business leaders are acutely aware of this. The Chief Executive could suddenly die, and unless he or she has a capable team in place, the business could be jeopardized. If nothing else, the ensuing power struggle could be distracting. The same applies to political leadership; unless there is a clear system of selecting the second in command ready to take over, the resulting uncertainty could be destabilizing. This is the fate of many Third World countries where leaders overstay their welcome.

On his regular visits to the company’s various units, Jack Welch, GE’s longtime CEO, insisted on seeing the three or four promising “direct report” executives under the divisional heads. He wanted those divisional heads to sharpen their talent searching skills, and also to see whether he agreed with their assessments.

Welch would inquire what they were doing to nurture the promising talent under them. To encourage this culture of recognizing and nurturing talent, Welch made sure that whenever a promising executive was promoted or “fast tracked,” his or her immediate superior was also duly recognized and rewarded.5 That would prevent the all too prevalent practice in the Malaysian civil service where superiors would banish their promising subordinates to obscure postings to eliminate potential rivals.

Major-General Mahmud Sulaiman used to agonize when evaluating his subordinate officers. He was fully aware that the lives of his troops depended on the officers leading them, thus he considered the evaluation exercises (which many treated perfunctorily or considered a nuisance) his most important duty.2

Great leaders are confident of their abilities and more importantly, limitations. They do not hesitate co-opting others more capable. Kennedy invited his formidable competitor, Lyndon Johnson, to be his Vice-Presidential nominee. Kennedy knew he did not command wide respect in Congress and the South, so he tapped Johnson who excelled in both areas.

The last quality is trust, and with that, reliability. These leaders are, to use the colloquial, straight shooters. They do not deliver different messages to different groups. The Machiavellian scheming may have worked in Medieval Europe, but in the modern world, such intrigues would be exposed eventually.

This is the unnerving trait of Anwar Ibrahim, hitherto Mahathir’s anointed successor. His speeches delivered to young Muslims in Malaysia were very different from those he gave at Western universities. One cannot be quite sure who was the real Anwar. The one constant with Mahathir is that his comments are similar whether delivered in Washington, DC, or his home state of Kedah. You know exactly where he stands.

Thus far as Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi is reduced to mouthing slogans and pithy phrases: “Work with me, not for me!” He has yet to communicate his vision of Malaysia; he is simply managing, not leading.

There is a world of difference between the two. Quoting Bennis, “Leaders conquer the context—the volatile, turbulent, ambiguous surroundings that sometimes seem to conspire against us and will surely suffocate us if we let them—while managers surrender to it.” Managers administer, leaders innovate; managers accept the status quo, leaders challenge it; managers eye the bottom line, leaders the horizon. Most importantly, a manager “does things right, a leader does the right thing.”

I do not mean to suggest that managers are unimportant. No organization would succeed if not for the cadre of competent managers to execute its mission. The failure of many potentially great leaders is their lack of execution.6 They may have great ideas and great people around them, but they fail miserably in the execution because of poor follow through and staff work. Mahathir had great visions of leading Malays into the world of science and technology, but he failed miserably in the execution; he neglected to train the necessary teachers and build the required laboratories. He cajoled Malays to be brave and entrepreneurial, but rewarded those closest to him and who sang his praises, in short, those least enterprising. He encouraged the very opposite behaviors, and then wondered why he did not achieve his goals.

Nor was Mahathir astute in picking talent. He was not prudent in selecting his successor, Abdullah Badawi. He unnecessarily restricted his choice only to sitting UMNO Vice-Presidents, in deference to party tradition. This from a leader who endlessly exhorted Malays to break free from our hide-bound customs! When he finally picked Abdullah, the announcement was greeted with an eerie absence of rousing endorsements.

Barely three years later, Mahathir could hardly contain his contempt for his successor, accusing him, among other misdeeds, of selling out the nation’s sovereignty. That particular hostile outburst came about after Abdullah cancelled the half bridge project over the causeway, one dear to Mahathir.

It is instructive that when Mahathir announced Abdullah to be Deputy Prime Minister, the latter considered that merely as a “promotion,” just another rung up the civil service ladder. This more than anything reflects Abdullah’s perception of the top job. He viewed it not as a rare and privileged opportunity to chart the nation’s future but as a personal advancement.

There is no foolproof way of picking winners among leaders. In the business and academic world, leaders have to prove their way to the top, and then be selected by their board or peers. National leaders get elected in a democracy; elsewhere they may simply grab power as in a military coup. These methods produce their share of winners and losers.

The bulk of the literature on leadership deals with the business world. They certainly have relevance for the political arena, but there are crucial differences. In business, the bottom line is well defined; not so with politics. In business, a non-profitable or poorly performing unit could be sold off or liquidated. When a segment of the population is marginalized or not contributing, they cannot be simply lopped off. The rest of society will have to carry the burden. Worse, those marginalized could easily turn against the state with devastating destructiveness, as seen with the Catholics in Northern Ireland and the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Business leaders are answerable to their board of directors, employees and other stakeholders; political leaders are answerable to and derive their authority from the people.

These differences aside, there are still valuable insights to be gained by studying leadership in the business world. The rest of this chapter will trace the evolution of the three patterns of leadership, and will end by looking at the Malaysian political leadership.

Next:  The Military Model

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #23

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007

Chapter 5:  Consequences of progress and Prosperity (Cont’d

Economic Growth and Social Equity

A much-decried consequence of economic growth is the attendant unequal distribution of wealth. We all differ in our abilities, aspirations, and priorities. While we all should be treated equally and be given equal opportunities, there is no reason why we should expect equal results. Those who produce more or better should reap their proper rewards. There is nothing unjust about that, indeed it would be the height of injustice were it to be otherwise. The Quran emphasizes justice, not equality; it frowns on poverty, not inequality. With the differences in our abilities, there will inevitably be corresponding differences in our achievements. The Quran admonishes us not to covet those who have more than us.

Nor would we be just if we were to treat everyone equally. The American jurist Felix Frankfurter once wrote, “It is a wise man who once said that there is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals.”9 As parents we do this intuitively with our children; we give more to those who need the most.

Accepting that there would be inevitable differences in our achievements does not imply that we should ignore such differences. When carefully analyzed, such jarring anomalies and inequalities are often the consequences of gross injustices through outright oppression and discrimination. Economists now recognize that such inequalities especially when extreme can be destabilizing and adversely impact growth.10

There would be no visible inequality if everyone were poor and starving. As society develops, there would be a transient increase in inequality, the so-called Kuznet inverted U curve.11 With greater prosperity, such inequalities tend to narrow. Some dispute this observation and point to the United States where despite increasing prosperity, the disparity in wealth between the top and bottom 20 percent of the population has widened. This disparity is even more dramatic if we compare those in the 99th percentile to those in the 20th.12 Surprisingly, inequality in America even though it roughly parallels ethnic and cultural lines does not elicit much outrage. This is because while inequality has increased, poverty has decreased, especially absolute poverty.

If you are mired in abject poverty you can understandably resent others with wealth, especially when that wealth is ostentatiously displayed. When you are not trapped in poverty but merely not well off, you may not be as envious of those who have great wealth. Your concerns then would be on how you could accumulate such good fortune and join the select crowd.

America has another positive trait that mitigates class resentment. By and large wealth in America is acquired through individual talent and achievement. The role of inheritance is reduced considerably through heavy inheritance and gift taxes. Unlike in feudal societies, heritage has a minimal role. The likes of Bill Gates and Tiger Woods acquire their fabulous wealth directly through their talent and accomplishments. Hence no one begrudges them. One may rightly argue whether such talent as in sports, entertainment, and software should be so outlandishly rewarded, but that is the voluntary judgment of society. This is quite different from the way much of the wealth is accumulated in the Third World, Malaysia included. There wealth is often not the result of talent or enterprise, rather of corruption and rent-seeking behaviors. It is no surprise that such wealth elicits much disgust.

Loss of Community Identity

Many fear that with progress and globalization, smaller communities risk losing their culture and language, and with that, their identity. They fear the overwhelming influence of the dominant cultures, in particular, Western culture. Today the artifacts and icons of Western culture are everywhere, from the slums of Soweto to the kasbah of Casablanca. Already, thousands of minor languages and cultures have been irretrievably lost.13

As with the physical problems associated with progress, this threatened loss of minority cultures, languages, and identities can best be solved not by retreating but by embracing progress and globalization. The successful societies and cultures are those that have accommodated to the dominant cultures and languages. The current social experiment in Papua New Guinea is instructive.14

This small South Pacific nation has over 5,000 distinct languages and cultures. The thick impenetrable jungles, steep rugged mountains, and swift wide rivers ensured the isolation of these disparate tribes, hence their distinctive cultures and separate languages through the ages. That is, until now. With trade, the Internet, and other modern communications, these tribes have come in increasing contact with each other and the outside world. With that, the ever-dominant Western culture and English language threaten to overwhelm their own rich heritage and language.

In 1993, their wise leaders adopted a novel approach. They reformed the education system whereby for the first three years the children would learn their own language. There are literally thousands of such languages. After the third year, they would continue with their own language but only as one subject, with the language of instruction now switched to English. In this way the children would learn early not only their own language but also English.

Teaching and learning their own language would ensure the survival of their language and culture; teaching and learning English would ensure their economic security. If those children were fluent only in their own language (which has limited value in the marketplace), they would quickly become marginalized economically. If they were not successful economically, their language would surely die with them. Their fluency in English would ensure their economic survivable in the larger world. Once that is assured, their language and culture would follow suit.

We see a similar phenomenon with the Irish. There was a time when being Irish and underclass were synonymous. No wonder they had an inferiority complex and did not wish to learn their own ancient language—Gaelic. Today, befitting their greatly improved economic status, the Irish are showing renewed interest in Gaelic. It is now chic to converse in it, and aspiring politicians liberally sprinkle their speeches in Gaelic.

Modern ICT could be harnessed to preserve the cultures of smaller societies and tribes. Through the Internet they could project their culture onto the wider world. Nepalese craftsmen could market their arts and crafts directly to buyers in London and New York through the Internet. They could also keep in close contact with their kin who have migrated to the cities or abroad, allowing them to maintain their heritage and culture.

There is a lesson here for Malaysia, not only for Malays but also the smaller tribes like the Ibans and Bidayuhs. Malays in particular feel threatened by the overwhelming presence of English language and Western culture. Having once been colonized, this fear of neocolonialism is not unreasonable. When the government suggested the wider use of English to enhance the employability of young Malays, language nationalists went ballistic.

Malaysia should learn from Papua New Guinea in solving this cultural and language dilemma. Ensure that young Malays and Malaysians are fluently bilingual in Malay and English. This added language skill would enhance their employability and economic success. Once they are no longer economically marginalized, they would more likely be proud of and willingly project their language and heritage.

Canada had its own unique bilingual and bicultural dilemma. There was a time in the 1950s when for a French-Canadian to learn English was seen as an act of national and cultural betrayal, and for an English-Canadian to learn French, appeasement to the French-Canadians! Today, many Canadians are fluently bilingual and comfortable in both cultures. They realize that is a significant asset in this era of globalization.

If all Malays were fluent in English and Malay, then there would not be any necessity for Malays to converse in English. The differentiating social value of knowing English is lost. Many Malays speak English even among themselves to show off the fact that they have attended a foreign university. It is widely known that local graduates can hardly speak a word of English. To differentiate yourself in the marketplace, you speak English.

The solution to the language dilemma of Malays is to encourage the widespread teaching and use of English, in addition to that of Malay. This may sound counterintuitive, but judging from what is happening in Canada, Ireland, and Papua New Guinea, this is definitely the wisest strategy.

            Next:  Personal Price for Progress

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #20

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007

Chapter 5:  Consequences of Progress and Prosperity

We all like to be better off today then we were a few years ago, and our children to be better off than we are. The issue is not with the concept of progress and prosperity, rather with their content.

Economists measure prosperity by the GDP, per capita income, and other such indices because those are the easiest to measure and compare (although there are still complexities associated). By and large they correlate with what most people view as progress and prosperity. Citizens of nations with high per capita income generally live better and longer than those in countries with low figures. The Ethiopians with their low per capita income and GDP lead a miserable existence as compared to the Swiss with their generous per capita income. The Ethiopians are less healthy, less educated, and have shorter life span and plenty to worry about as they go through their daily existence.

            The World Bank divides nations into four categories based on their per capita income: low, low-middle, high-middle, and high-income countries. Within each group, the per capita income loses its discriminative value. The Canadians and Swedes have much lower per capita income than the Americans, but few Canadians or Swedes would envy the Americans. To make a finer distinction, the Bank introduces the concept of “Development Diamond” by looking at four socioeconomic indicators: life expectancy, school enrolment, access to potable water, and per capita GDP. These are then plotted along four axes at right angle to each other, thus giving an easy graphic representation. The bigger and more symmetrical the diamond, the better is the overall quality of life of the citizens.1

The GDP figures, widely used, have their own limitations. They do not differentiate between the economic values of reconstructing of New Orleans damaged by Katrina, to building a new city. Similarly, the value of mothers taking care of their young at home, which is a valuable and significant investment in the nation’s future, does not add to the GDP. If she works at a factory and employs a maid, then the values of her work and that of her maid’s service count toward the GDP. Then there is the classic folly of the birth of a calf adding to the GDP (as future producer of milk and beef), while the birth of a human baby reduces the per capita GDP (by increasing the denominator).

            Those broad considerations aside, there is still no universal agreement on what constitutes progress, or the good life. To Kelantan Malays, the good life would be when they are assured of a slot in heaven. A leader who promised them that would get their votes. To the likes of Osama bin Ladin, the good life is the promised virgins in the Hereafter. To the average American, the good life is when he or she can have a decent home in a peaceful neighborhood, and good medical care without bankrupting the family.

The Nobel laureate in economics Amartya Sen argues passionately in his book (Development as Freedom) that human freedom should be the primary end and principle means of development.2 Freedom in all its dimensions: political, economic, in opportunities and in security. Freedom in one arena feeds on freedom in other areas. He makes the profound observation that no famine (or viewed differently, absence of freedom from privation) has ever taken place in a functioning democracy.

Development, Sen continues, must go beyond the accumulation of wealth, GDP growth, and other related variables. It must ultimately relate to and be concerned with enhancing the lives we lead and the freedoms we enjoy. The founding fathers of America said it best: In the pursuit of happiness.

Culture plays a big role in defining what the good life is, the content of the concept of progress. In my book Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, I define progress as improvements in the ability of a society to take care of the basic needs of its members in terms of food, clothing, and shelter, as well as in ensuring that citizens are allowed to develop to their fullest potential.3 There are two points to this definition. One, it implies an ongoing process. There is no end point; you can always improve on your conditions. Two, there is still space for cultural interpretations as to what constitutes “basic needs” and “full potential.” In feudal societies you are deemed to have a full life if you have faithfully obeyed your lord and master. In many Third World societies, that is still true.

Cultural relativism notwithstanding, there are some sets of values and aspirations that are universally (or nearly so) shared. As stated in Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington’s book, Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress, these include the premise that:

• Life is better than death

• Health is better than sickness

• Liberty is better than slavery

• Prosperity is better than poverty

• Education is better than ignorance

• Justice is better than injustice.4

Fanatical suicide bombers might take exception to the first statement; likewise hypochondriacs to the second. As for liberty over slavery, not too long ago slavery was accepted as an expression of God’s grand design, at least in the religion of the oppressors. Nobody bothered to ask the slaves.

            As for education being better than ignorance, I once met an Education Minister from Brunei; he saw no merit in spending his nation’s vast wealth on schools or otherwise educating the masses. You only raised their expectations, he reasoned, and then they would become uppity and start complaining about their government. Before you knew it, you would have an uprising! That Brunei official was not alone. Many, especially in the Arab world, still hold the same view towards their women.

These fringe elements excepted, most accept the preceding six statements. Regardless of how we define progress, it has its own problems; some anticipated, others not. At times, mired in the problems of the day, we conveniently forget about the challenges and tribulations of the past. We wistfully long for the good old days when things were presumably much better, at least according to our now selective memory.

I illustrate this with the invention of the automobile, which most would regard as definite progress. It revolutionized the way we do almost everything. Even the most virulent Luddite would admit that cars and trucks are much better, superior, more efficient, and yes, even less polluting than the old horse-drawn carts. Yes, cars are noisy and spout out greenhouse gases. Every year thousands are killed or maimed by this contraption, and vast tracts of fertile land are being paved over to accommodate it.

Imagine if cars had not been invented and we were still stuck with horse-drawn carriages. The streets (and we) would by now be buried under horse excrement, with the associated flies and stench. Our cities would be inhabitable. Instead of greenhouse gases, we would have methane oozing out of every hole in the ground.

By the same token, those same dynamics that give rise to that remarkable progress in producing cars are also equally effective in managing the associated problems. Fatalities associated with automobile accidents are considerably lower in the First World than in the developing world because of improvements in safety and other designs. American cars are also equipped with catalytic converters that markedly reduce pollution. Meanwhile the air in many Third World cities are laden with airborne lead because of the still widespread use of leaded gasoline and highly polluting inefficient engines.

The problems associated with or created by progress would be more effectively solved through more progress, not less. These problems could be physical, social, personal, and moral. I will deal with each separately.

Next:  The Physical Price of Progress