Towards A Competitive Malaysia: An Open Letter to PM Abdullah

(This is the second of two excerpts from my forthcoming book, Towards A Competitive Malaysia: Development Challenges for the Twenty-first Century. It is due to be released this October 2006. This excerpt is the last chapter, essentially a summary of the book. MBM)

Enhancing Competitiveness

The major barrier to Malaysians becoming competitive is our ineffective and outmoded education system. Malaysians are fully aware of this, and those who can have already abandoned it. This includes your own Minister of Education! Witness the steady stream every school day morning of our young heading to Singapore for their education.

You and your predecessor have committed to the wider use of English, and to the teaching of science and mathematics in that language. Yet there are still no English-medium teachers’ colleges to train the necessary teachers, and few universities have Departments of English.

This lack of English fluency is most acute in the villages. To solve it, bring back English schools in those areas. With Malay being spoken at home and in the community, it would be unlikely for these pupils to “forget “ their own language. Just to be sure, restrict those schools only to pupils whose mother tongue is Malay or whose families already demonstrate fluency in that language. That would stimulate non-Malays to learn Malay in order to send their children to these English schools.

Open up all levels in education to private sector participation, with the proviso that the enrollment at these institutions must reflect Malaysian society. The present racial self-segregation at private colleges and universities is dangerous; it must be rectified.

As a leader you can do much through personal example to rid our culture of its non-competitive traits, but you have not done so. You asked Malaysians to save and be frugal, yet the wedding of your own daughter was obscenely ostentatious, dragging on for days. Companies associated with your immediate family are doing business with the government without full disclosure, making a mockery of your pledge for transparency.

You must pursue your New Malay Dilemma by discouraging ‘Ali Babaism ‘ and other rent-seeking behaviors. Follow through on your earlier commitment to have transparent competitive biddings, with no exceptions. If you make one, the whole process would quickly unravel and you would be back to the bad old days. Our culture must reward productivity; giving contracts based solely on political or family connections would undermine that.

Corruption is now ingrained; you need “shock treatment” to eradicate it. Soft, incremental approach would not work; that would only embolden the crooks. Big government, with its penchant to control everything, is the greatest contributor to and obstacle in ridding of corruption. Shrink the government and deregulate a big chunk of the public sector, and you reduce opportunities for graft. Begin by trimming your bloated cabinet. Get rid of such Ministries as Culture, Information, Sports, Tourism, Higher Education, Religious Affairs, and Women’s Affairs. I can list a few more.

A smaller government would effectively strengthen and make your administration more effective. A government that overreaches is a government that is ineffective.
Where corruption is entrenched, I suggest outsourcing the work to private agencies. Shutting down those corrupt departments would send seismic shock waves throughout the civil service, and would serve as a catalyst to cleanse itself.

Allah has blessed Malaysia with many positive geographic attributes, but Malaysians have not been responsible stewards of such bountiful gifts. Our valuable tropical rainforests are fast being denuded, giving rise to severe soil erosions that in turn silt the rivers and lakes. We have polluted our waters; they are no longer the source of life but its poison. Our beaches are no longer attractive; they repel us.

Now that you have abandoned the silly crooked bridge over Johore causeway, I hope that you would divert the hundreds of millions saved towards providing an efficient sewer system so the residents would not use the rivers and seas as dumps.

Those hitherto pristine beaches are for the enjoyment of all, locals as well as foreigners. Tourism is the leading economic activity in the Caribbean; it could do the same for Malaysia. The rich biodiversity of our jungle holds secrets that could lead to the discovery of novel drugs and cures. As responsible custodians, Malaysians ought to give due diligence to protecting this precious resource.

Similarly with the bountiful gift of oil and gas; we owe subsequent generations not to squander Allah’s generous endowment. Reducing and ultimately eliminating the petroleum subsidy is wise. That subsidy disproportionately benefits the rich; nonetheless you should make provisions so the poor would not suffer unnecessarily. We should prudently invest that bounty from the oil for future generations. Follow the example of Norway’s Petroleum Trust Fund by investing the revenue for future generations, and Canada’s Alberta Heritage Fund by investing in the present generation through building excellent schools and universities. We should not ape the Arabs by squandering the wealth on arms and conspicuous consumption.

You repeatedly stated that you have your own style of leadership. Yes, there are as many styles of leadership as there are leaders. Style is not important; more essential is achieving your goals, the execution.

You should focus on these few select objectives; do not be sidetracked. Forget about Islam Hadhari. As Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. declared, Allah has given us a perfect religion in Islam, there is no need to put a qualifier to it. Besides, you were elected Prime Minister, not Imam.

This preoccupation with religion is misplaced. Islam is a great faith, it will thrive whether there is official government recognition or not. Islam survived the Soviet system and Chinese communism. The government’s obsession with Islam succeeds only in radicalizing its extremist followers intent on turning the nation back to seventh century Arabia. Islam should be in our hearts, not our sleeves. Nor should it be on billboards or banners. With your widely acknowledged religious credentials, you would be the only leader who could take on these misguided religious zealots.

Leaving Your Mark

The glaring deficit of your leadership is lack of execution. Your answer to every problem is to form a committee. As Prime Minister, you should be “the Decider,” to quote President Bush. Punting problems onto committees reflects shallow executive talent. Not paying attention to execution is the bane of many leaders. All your wise policies would be meaningless if their execution is wanting.

There are plenty of opportunities for you to make an impact and have a legacy that you and the nation would be proud of. Malaysia is uniquely positioned to lead the greater Malay world, and to bridge East and West as well as between the West and the Islamic world.

Focus on being the beacon for the Malay world. Instead of spreading your efforts on ASEAN and OIC, concentrate on the three states that share many commonalities: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei (IMB). If we can integrate the three economies, markets, language and other spheres, IMB could be the nucleus for greater regional cooperation later. EU was started by only a few committed states; today with its success the rest of Europe is eager to join in. To be sure, this IMB concept should be based on economic and other practical considerations, not on some mushy emotional elements that characterized earlier failed attempts with Malindo (Malaysia and Indonesia), and Maphilindo (with the Philippines added). IMB is also the only sure way to make Malay language and culture viable and be of global consequence.

You stated that you do not wish your legacy to be one of physical monuments. I applaud you. Make Malaysia and Malaysians competitive; that would be a legacy more enduring and worth striving for.

All these aspirations would be for naught if Malaysians were divided. I am distressed at the increasing fragmentation of Malaysians and the deepening polarization of Malays. So should you.

The solution lies not in emphasizing but celebrating our differences; not in minimizing but sharing our commonalities. You must blunt those elements that would drive a wedge between Malaysians, and nurture those that would bring us together.

Perversely, your emphasizing religion, in particular Islam Hadhari, creates divisions not only within Muslims but also between Muslims and non-Muslims. That would not be the first or last time that religion, which should be a force for peace and harmony, to be divisive.

Likewise with politics; the grand Malaysian experiment of race-based political parties has brought the citizens together and ensured that no minority group gets disenfranchised. It had served in unifying the nation since its inception, but since this model has not been nurtured and strengthened, politics has now become divisive.

UMNO’s obsession with Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony) is a major contributor to this divisiveness. Both the premise and promise of Ketuanan Melayu are false. The premise that Malays would automatically become Tuan (Master) by virtue of our heritage, a social contract agreed upon by our earlier leaders, or through the will of Allah breeds an unhealthy sense of entitlement. That does nothing but erode our competitiveness. Malays, like others, have to work to be Tuan; we have to earn it; it is not due us by right. That is the dangerous and false promise of Ketuanan Melayu. If Malays were competitive, rest assured we would be Tuan even where it is not Tanah Melayu (Malay Land).

While Malays are obsessed with being de jure (through the force of law) Tuan, non-Malays through their increasing competitiveness are becoming de facto (as a matter of fact) Tuan in Malaysia. The sooner UMNO members specifically and Malays generally are disabused of their collective delusion of Ketuanan Melayu, the better it is for all.

The sure path to uniting Malaysians is not through culture, education, language, politics, or religion but economics, specifically through the wonders of the marketplace. Embrace free enterprise, and encourage the market exchange of goods and services among Malaysians, and between Malaysians and the world. Once Malaysians view each other less as Malays and non-Malays but more as potential clients, customers and partners, national unity and prosperity would be enhanced. Likewise when we view foreigners in those terms, Malaysians would be contributing their share towards world peace and prosperity.

That you are succeeding a formidable leader should be an inspiration, not a distraction. You are not the first leader to be in such a position. Harry Truman followed the forceful Franklin D Roosevelt, and did a credible job; John Major followed the mercurial Margaret Thatcher, and ended up being ridiculed. The two may be too foreign an example; permit me to suggest someone closer, China’s Deng Xiaoping.

China is fast positioning itself to be a superpower. The man responsible for this remarkable reversal of fortune was not its legendary leader Mao Zedong, but his diminutive, unassuming, and lowly regarded successor, Deng Xiaoping. Deng did it not with stirring oratory, physical presence, or oozing charisma, but by changing attitudes, beginning with his. He could not care less what is the color of the cat, he once memorably said, as long as it catches the mice. With that, he transformed China. There may be monuments to and volumes written on Chairman Mao, but the man who uplifted millions of Chinese from the clutches of poverty, and in the process put his nation on the course to be a superpower, was the underrated Deng.

There is one other useful lesson from the unassuming Deng. On succeeding the giant Mao, Deng was not consumed with dismantling the Chairman’s legacy. Nor was Deng bent on exposing Mao’s excesses, even though Deng’s own son suffered severely through them.

There is no need to besmirch your predecessor’s legacy in order to build yours. Despite his manifest excesses, Mahathir contributed much. Except for the inevitable disgruntled few, many still rightly hold him in high regards. Mahathir is an asset, not a liability, for Malaysians and for you. Tap his vast insight, talent, and experience; get close to, not separate yourself from him. I am on record as being Mahathir’s severest critic even during the peak of his popularity, so I do not make those assertions lightly.

Build on your own legacy, and if you are successful, the excesses of you predecessor will become obvious through comparison. Create your legacy in your own style. There is no need to blow out someone else’s candle in order to make yours shine brighter.

This letter is written in the spirit of helping you be a Malaysian Deng, and thus earn the enduring gratitude of all Malaysians.

Yours truly,

M. Bakri Musa
July 2006

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