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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

A Modest Proposal For The Champions of Ketuanan Melayu

A Modest Proposal for the Champions of Ketuanan Melayu

M. Bakri Musa

Last of Three Parts:  Leveraging Residential Schools

[In Parts One and Two I suggested that we should focus on enhancing Malay competitiveness and productivity instead of forever begrudging the success of non-Malays or bemoaning the presumed deficiencies of our race and culture. We should begin with our young, the best of them, those at our residential schools. Have high expectations of them, put them through a demanding program, and expose them to rigorous competition.]

            The key to any high performing school is the teachers. Both Korean schools (Daewon and Minjuk mentioned earlier) actively sought graduates of top universities to be on their staff. Such highly qualified teachers inspire their students. And when it comes to writing letters of recommendations, those teachers carry much weight, especially when students apply to their teacher’s alma mater.

            You do not need and it is impossible for all your teachers to have sterling credentials, only that there should be a critical number of them to set the tone and change the culture. Besides, there are many excellent teachers who are graduates of lesser universities.

            Look back at MCKK of yore, with Oxbridge and London University graduates on its staff. At KYUEM, a local college prep school with exemplary record of student achievements, most of its teachers are local but there are sufficient graduates of top universities, including the headmaster, to set the pace and establish a high academic ambience.

            On another level, it would be difficult for a local graduate to understand the intricacies and nuances of applying to top foreign universities, or the challenges of attending one.

            With the present pay scheme there is little hope to recruit such top graduates. This is where the private sector could help by sponsoring highly educated foreign teachers. Petronas sponsors Formula One and the KL Philharmonic. Why not economics teachers for MCKK? Such “endowed” appointments are very common at American schools and colleges. If MCKK were to charge wealthy parents it could also hire its own foreign teachers.

            You do not have to pay as high a salary as in Singapore or South Korea as Malaysia has much cheaper living expenses. Thailand has no difficulty getting excellent expatriate teachers at US$30-40K per annum.

            For every three students we send abroad, we could recruit two American teachers and benefit many more students at home. In terms of actual loss of foreign exchange, it is far cheaper to recruit one American teacher than to send a student abroad as that teacher’s salary would be spent locally with the attendant multiplier effect, while the entire student’s scholarship money is expended abroad.

            Such highly-paid foreigners would not generate resentment from their local colleagues. Local teachers at KYUEM are paid less than their expatriate colleagues yet they do not resent the preferential treatment. Of course if you do get a Malaysian who is a graduate of a top university and is an excellent teacher, then he or she too should be paid as well as the foreigner. There should be differential pay based on the quality of the teacher, not citizenship.

            Apart from recruiting from abroad, there are Malaysians who are graduates of top universities whom, given the augmented pay, SBPs could employ as teachers, or at least tap as mentors.


Policy Makers and Executors

Stable, competent, committed, and inspiring leadership; those are the essential ingredients to a successful organization, more so a school. The headship of SBP should be a terminal appointment. There should be nothing else after that except retirement and glowing in the reflected glory of your students’ success. The appointment should never be a stepping stone for someone on his way to be Undersecretary for Procurement at the Ministry.

            The headmaster should also serve for a sufficient term. As Howell noted, “No headmaster can leave his mark on a school and have a lasting influence on its development in under five or six years.”

            He or she must also be a graduate of a respectable university, again to set the tone. He need not have an advanced degree. Given the choice, all things being equal, I prefer someone with a good bachelor’s degree over a candidate with a higher degree but from a less stellar institution.

            Like great individuals, little is known about nurturing great institutions. One thing is certain however. Like individuals, if institutions are held under tight control and not given the freedom to grow, they will quickly become sclerotic and unresponsive. The job of policymakers is to select capable individuals to helm these schools. Once that is done, they should be given the leeway to carry out their mission without micromanagement from the ministry.

            This means SBPs must have full autonomy–academic, administrative, and financial. They hire and fire the teachers. The ministry’s lever should be at the macro level, as with selecting the board of governors and through funding.

            SBP’s measure of success should only be this:  number of their students ending up at top universities. All other measures, except where they contribute to this singular goal, are irrelevant. At Speech Day the headmaster should be announcing which top universities his or her graduating students would be attending, just like the graduation exercises at top American prep schools.

            The policy does not end with these students being accepted to top colleges. They must also be assured of a scholarship and then be given the freedom to choose whatever field of study. If they are smart enough to be admitted to those top institutions, then they are smart enough to plan their future wisely, certainly better than those folks at JPA, MARA, or Khazanah.

            It pains me to see bright young Malays pursue a course of study for which they have minimal passion because that is the scholarship they were being awarded, based on supposed “national interest.”

            Providing scholarships for matriculation (sixth form) is misplaced. I would wait after the students have been accepted to a top university. That would free them to choose whatever route (matrikulasi, twinning programs, Sixth Form, IB, or A level) that best suits them. Meanwhile use those funds to support IB and “A” level programs at SBPs to benefit many more students.

            After they have graduated, do not tie their hands with rigid rules like having to return immediately or work for a specific entity. Grant them some freedom. If they are offered graduate work or a job abroad, let them. Do not stand in the way of their pursuing their aspirations.

            The only stipulation is that they should serve the nation in whatever capacity they see fit for a specified period during the first decade after their graduation. Only when they fail to do so would they have to reimburse their sponsor.


GLC and Private Sector Participation

Khazanah through its subsidiary already has a successful model–KYUEM. It prepares students for “A” level. That is more productive in developing quality human capital than the route Petronas and Tenaga chose in setting up their own universities, which are nothing more that puffed-up technical colleges. Khazanah is also involved in joint ventures with the government through the “smart school” programs.

            There are other ways for private sector involvement. One is the current system of letting anyone set up a private college and charge whatever the market will bear. That would benefit only the few wealthy Malays.

            An alternate route would be for Khazanah to pursue its own path a la Singapore’s Raffles Education Group. Freed from governmental strictures, Khazanah could lead the way with its string of prep schools modeled after KYUEM. Without the residential component, the cost would be considerably less. Then it could proceed to a university, modeled not after local ones but the likes of the American University in Beirut or the Aga Khan University in Pakistan.

            Education is as valid a sector for private investment as tourism or health. It is doubly profitable, enhancing both human and financial capitals. It would certainly be more productive than pouring money into a floundering airline.

            It is time for Malays to discard the old destructive narrative of the “lazy native” imposed upon us by the colonialists and slavishly perpetuated by our intellectually-indolent “nationalists.” When the colonialists concocted that narrative, they benefited from it. It was their rationale for bringing in hordes of foreign indentured labor. When our latter-day Hang Tuahs aped that, they only made a monkey out of themselves. What benefit do they derive by denigrating our culture and nature?

            We need a modern relevant narrative, grounded in solid social science. Our problems stem from our being not competitive and productive. Fix that and we solve our problem. Bend our rebong now and a generation hence our bamboo groves would be more to our liking. By then we could not care less whether the likes of Perkasa’s Ibrahim Ali and Tun Mahathir would eat their words. They and their myths would have long been forgotten.

            As for me, Insha’ Allah (God willing) I look forward to one day meeting many young Malays at San Francisco Airport on their way to Stanford and Berkeley. That would be the sublime and truest expression of Ketuanan Melayu.



Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Modest Proposal For The Champions of Ketuanan Melayu Part II

A Modest Proposal for the Champions of Ketuanan Melayu
 
M. Bakri Musa
 
 
Second of Three Parts: Molding Our Students
 
[In Part One I suggested that our current obsession with the presumed deficiencies of our race and our undisguised resentment over the successes of others are but expressions of frus (frustration) and fury for our own lack of competitiveness and productivity. We should focus instead on remedying both, and begin with our young, especially those promising ones at our SBPs.]
 
It may seem obvious but needs to be stated explicitly: We must prepare these students for top universities the moment they step foot at a SBP. That’s how they do it elsewhere. American students aspiring to top universities begin their preparation upon entering high school, or even earlier. The courses they take, their extra-curricular programs as well as their summer activities are all geared towards this central mission.
 
            My grandchildren who are in an American school in Singapore have assigned reading lists for the summer, and they are still in primary school! Likewise, SBP students must have mandatory reading lists and writing assignments during their long holidays. The purpose is two-fold. One is to prevent attrition of knowledge and study skills during the long hiatus, and the other, to inculcate the habit of reading and writing. It impresses upon them that those skills are not just for examinations.
 
            Once when I took my family on an overseas trip, my son’s teacher asked him to keep a journal to be shared with his class while my daughter was assigned to study a Malay folk tale. In high school my son was invited to spend his summer break at Ames Research Center.
 
            I speak with some experience. When my daughter entered Harvard Law School over 15 years ago, she was the first Malaysian to enroll there. There has not been another since. One of my sons works for an agency that prepares students for selective universities.
 
            We should prepare all SBP students for recognized matriculation examinations like IB, American AP, or British “A” level, and start them from day one. Consequently it would serve no purpose for them to sit for SRP and SPM. Those tests have little predictive value anyway; their philosophy and assumptions are also very different.
 
            Since these students have limited English proficiency coming as they are from the national stream, why not have their first year at SBP be full English-immersion akin to the Special Malay or “Remove” Classes of yore? Better yet, make all SBPs English-medium. That however, is no panacea. MARA already has a few English-medium SBPs but their students’ achievements remain disappointing. We need to do more.
 
            I envisage admitting the students in the middle of their Form II instead of Form I, as at present, based on their SRP scores as well as their Form I and first term of Form II performances. By the time they sit for their IB or “A” level five years later, their cohorts in the regular school would be in the middle of their Upper Six.
 
            Their college counseling should start right away, as with preparing for their PSAT and SAT. There must be adequate resources and personnel to guide these students in their college choices, but more on that later.
 
            Daewon’s and Minjuk’s excellent results were skewed because their students were children of diplomats, expatriates, and others who had been educated in the West. The South Korean government has since changed the rule to make those schools liberalize their admissions. For SBPs I suggest that they reserve half their slots for those who would be the first in their family to enter university and those from the kampongs.
 
            No matter how stringent the selection process, inevitably there will a few who would not thrive in the residential school environment. While every attempt should be made to help them, but if they do not measure up, then they should be returned to regular schools. They are not failures rather they are better suited for day school.
 
            Three features of the Korean schools are worth emulating. First is the mentoring system where first-year students are paired with a senior. Second, those students are constantly exposed to successful role models, fellow Koreans as well as non-Koreans who are graduates of top universities. Those students get first-hand perspectives beyond what could be gleaned from the college brochures. Likewise, our SBPs should invite Malaysians who are graduates of top universities to give talks to and inspire these students.
 
            The third striking feature is that the students’ time is structured during their entire waking hours. They are always involved in something, if not with their classes and class assignments then debates, sports, music, and a myriad of extra-curricular activities. When students are occupied, they are less likely to get into trouble.
 
            MCKK obtained excellent results during the time of Principal Howell when he instituted daily afternoon “preps” in addition to the evening ones. When you have high expectations and demand more from your students, they respond.
 
            The converse is even more consequential. If you have low expectations or reward those who do not strive, as with sending them to third-rate universities abroad, then you are imparting the wrong message. That would be akin to membajakan (adding fertilizer) lallang. Even without the extra help, those weeds would snuff out the lengkuas. In a rentier economy, we are busy fertilizing our lallang.
 
            MARA is membajakan lallang by sending hundreds of its students to third-rate universities abroad. The money could be better spent to strengthen its matriculation programs and SBPs at home. MARA should adopt tougher standards and send only those who have been accepted to top universities. Currently it sends students abroad even for sixth form. It is cheaper and far more effective to prepare those students in Malaysia. MARA’s current policy only perpetuates this culture of mediocrity.
 
Next Week: Last of Three Parts: Leveraging Residential Schools

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Modest Proposal For Champions of Ketuanan Melayu Part I

A Modest Proposal for the Champions of Ketuanan Melayu
 
M. Bakri Musa
 
 
First of Three Parts: Have High Expectations Of Our Young
 
Hardly a day goes by without those self-proclaimed champions of Malay race and defenders of Malay rights frothing at the mouth demanding that they (non-Malays) do this or that so we Malays could be the unquestioned Tuans (masters) of Tanah Melayu. When these Hang Tuah wannabes are not consumed with their theatrics of brandishing their ketchup-soaked kerises, they are obsessed with denigrating our culture and national character. To them we are lazy, dishonest, and know no shame.
 
            Strip the rhetoric and those expressions of frus (“Manglish” for frustration) and fury are understandable if not predictable. We are frustrated because with the billions spent on us and the ever-generous special privileges heaped upon us, we still lag behind the others. We are furious because despite not being mollycoddled by the government, they thrive.
 
            We are so angry that we cannot even pause to ponder perhaps they prosper precisely because the government leaves them alone and does not direct their lives, or that the massive “help” we get is anything but that. There is an art in helping. Done right and you open the door to the world for those you help; done wrong and you have a dependent invalid.
 
            Our futile and unenlightened reactions do not solve our dilemma; they hinder by hiding the glaring reality and fundamental issue: Malays are not competitive or productive.
 
            Malaysia cannot be stable much less thrive if a sizable and readily identifiable segment of its population (more so if they consider themselves “special” or “princes and princesses of the soil”) is marginalized through lack of competitiveness or productivity. Then all Malaysians would suffer. If Malays are competitive, then Malaysia would be too.
 
            At the individual level, if Malays are competitive then we would be Tuans even if we are not in Tanah Melayu. I can attest to that.
 
            Because we are not productive, our hard work does not generate commensurate returns. That disheartens us. To aggravate matters, those whom we deem “successful” get there not through their own effort but connections, corruption, and other classic manifestations of a rentier economy. That discourages us even more; worse, it encourages us to emulate them, meaning, do anything but an honest day’s job.
 
            Our laziness and dishonesty are the result and not the cause of our lack of competitiveness and productivity. Our newly-acquired value system where honest hard work is denigrated only aggravates matters. Once we acknowledge that we are not competitive or productive, and appreciate the various contributing factors, then we can begin crafting effective remedies. That demands hard work and much thought, with little time left to shout or be angry.
 
            Enhancing our competitiveness and productivity would enable us to contribute to rather than depend on the state. Apart from benefiting the economy, that would also dignify our values and culture, quite apart from reducing our envy for the achievements of others. We would also be less likely to be swayed by the demagogues amongst us.
 
            It is too late and would do little good to focus on the old, rigid, or senile. Besides, they are the not the future of our race or country. Likewise the Mat Rempits; their die is already cast. As per our ancient wisdom, melentur buloh biarlah dari rebung nya (if you wish to bend bamboos, begin with the shoots). Not just any sapling but those promising ones, the ones at our Sekolah Berasrama Penuh (SBP, fully residential schools).
 
            How good a job are we doing at shaping those vigorous saplings? SBPs get the top students, best teachers, and more than their fair share of resources. However, visit the top universities and the Malaysians there are from other than our supposedly elite SBPs. This sorry state should alarm those champions of Ketuanan Melayu.
           
            Consider the oldest SBP, Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK). It only recently started its International Baccalaureate (IB) program. Prior to that the school, like most SBPs, was but a glorified middle school; its students had to go elsewhere to matriculate. Despite the luminaries on its board (with Raja Muda of Perak, now Sultan, chairing it), MCKK took over a decade to implement its IB program. Imagine the pace at lesser institutions! MCKK’s female counterpart, Tunku Kurshiah College, remains an expensive middle school.
 
            IB is a rigorous academic program, and recognized as such worldwide. Despite or perhaps because of that, few of MCKK students enroll in the program. That speaks volumes of them, and their perception of the school after spending five years there.
 
            It may surprise many but the two schools that regularly send the most students to elite universities are not in Britain or America but South Korea (Daewon, established in 1984; and Minjok, 1997). Both may be new and in a non-English speaking country, with their students non-native English speakers to boot, but they bested the Etons and Exeters.
 
            It is a sad commentary that in over a century MCKK managed to send only a very few to the Ivy League, fewer than peas in a pod. If Malaysia aspires to have a Nobel laureate by 2020, as expressed often by many, then may I suggest that it first try a less lofty goal, as with sending a student or two to Harvard or Yale? This should be SBP’s yardstick. There is no point in having these expensive SBPs if their students were to end up at UiTM, Creekville State U, or the University of Ulu Britain.
 
            Our SBPs do not lack for potential Ivy League candidates. Fulfilling their aspirations would require strong effort not just from them but also the entire community, from teachers and governing boards to parents and policy makers. Failure to do that would provide potential recruits for future Mat Rempits and latter-day Hang Tuahs.
 
            SBP students must and should end up at top universities. There must be acceptance of and striving towards this singular goal. The scarce and expensive resources of SBPs should not be expended on those with lesser expectations. If the students do not share such high aspirations, then they should not be at a SBP. The students at Minjok and Daewon are very much aware of this high expectation when they apply for admission.
 
            There should not be any equivocation, or the adding of extraneous fuzzy themes like loyalty to “bangsa, bahasa, agama, negara.” Those are nebulous and not readily measurable anyway. The cause of our bangsa, bahasa, negara, agama is best served with these students attending elite institutions.
 
            By “elite” I mean the top dozen in Britain, the half a dozen in Australasia and Canada, and a hundred or so in the US (University of California level and above). You do not need expensive SBPs to prepare for the rest.
 
            SBPs are expensive, so we must explore innovations to reduce the cost so many more could benefit. These include dispensing with the boarding component, inviting private sector participation, and making those who could afford pay their way.
 
            Take the last item. To non-Malays, the billions spent on SBPs are for Malays; there is no denying that. However, visit any SBP on weekends; the parking lots and beyond are filled with expensive late-model cars of wealthy parents.
 
            If I had been spared my children’s educational expenses I could have a new Lamborghini and more every year. If those rich Malay parents had been made to pay the full freight, they would not send their children to SBPs, thus opening more slots for deserving poor kampong kids. That would truly be helping Malays.
 
            When I went to Malay College in the early 1960s, there was a quantum leap in my living standards. I studied under the cool comfort of the fluorescent lamp instead of the searing heat of a kerosene one, and enjoyed piped water instead of having to haul it from a well. I was also spared endless hours waiting for the erratic village school bus. For my sons and grandsons however, sending them to Malay College would be a significant downgrade. Besides, that would deprive other young Bakris now in the kampongs of their opportunity.
 
            Contrary to popular perception, making SBP free does not “help” Malays. Far from it! As well-to-do parents do not factor in the costs of their children’s education, they do not save. In the aggregate that contributes to the declining savings rate; and with that, capital formation that is so essential to economic growth. Worse, we corrupt the values and mindset of those wealthy Malays, turning them into welfare recipients. They in turn transmit those values to their children; the subsidy mentality and culture of dependency ingrained for generations. That is the most destructive part.
 
Next Week – Second of Three Parts: Molding Our Students
 
 

Monday, September 08, 2014

Najib Desperate To Be Relevant



Najib Desperate To Be Relevant
M. Bakri Musa
 
Last Saturday, September 6, 2014, marked a milestone of sorts for Prime Minister Najib Razak. On that day he exceeded the tenure of his predecessor, Abdullah Badawi. Abdullah served for five years, five months, and three days, the extra day thrown in with the 2008 leap year. Najib had his too in 2012. The traditional landmarks for a new leader are the first hundred and first thousand days. For Najib that was July 12, 2009 and December 18, 2011.
            The “First 100 Days” is President Roosevelt’s (FDR) phrase. To him that was the best or most opportune period for a new leader to reshape the course of a nation. Did he ever! The “First One Thousand Days” also referred to FDR, the title of a book by his senior aide. The expression now is associated more with Kennedy’s Camelot days in the White House. In my profession, thousand days refer to the period before a child’s second birthday when good health and nutrition, as well as parental involvement and a stimulating home environment, are critical.
            Najib had little to show by all three timelines. Today he struggles and is in fact desperate to be relevant. He is less being criticized, more ignored; a much worse fate for a leader.

Najibs’ One Hundred Days
            In a television interview on his hundredth day in office, Najib pleaded for his administration to be assessed after a full term, not a hundred days. Fair enough, after all he is no FDR. The end of Najib’s first term came and went with the May 2013 election that saw his coalition’s worst performance, surpassing the humiliation suffered by his predecessor. Abdullah took responsibility for his debacle and resigned, albeit after much prodding. Najib continued on.
            When he assumed office I predicted that with Malaysians now sensitized to and less forgiving of incompetence having been through with Abdullah, Najib would have an even briefer tenure. Alas, I was wrong; I overestimated Najib’s sense of honor or responsibility. He has neither. So unlike Abdullah, voters would have to kick him out, and do so in no uncertain terms. A point to remember come the next election.
            Najib announced his brave economic liberalization moves soon after taking office. At the first resistance however, he did not just flip flop like Abdullah but reversed course. He assured his UMNO Putras that their favorite rent-seeking activities would not be curtailed but in fact enhanced. Over five years and an election later, Najib is still busy buying favors.
            Then there was the Commission of Inquiry he was forced to set up to investigate Teoh Beng Hock’s death. Teoh was a “friendly” witness who died after being interviewed by the anti-corruption agency in the early hours of the morning. Later, a few days before Najib’s hundredth-day anniversary, there was a massive but peaceful BERSIH 2.0 rally which he had earlier declared illegal. That notwithstanding, there were its leaders–a beaming Ambiga Sreenivasan and Poet Laureate Samad Said–getting an audience with the King. Apparently His Majesty too ignored Najib, and so soon into his tenure!
            If Abdullah was a main-main (play-acting) or “practice” Prime Minister, then Najib is the sacrificial zinc anode one. He attracts the corruption, ugliness, and extremism of his supporters. Then when weighted down with the accumulated accretions, voters would toss him out, sparing the nation. Najib however collects those corrosions way too fast; Malaysians must consider chucking him sooner. I had suggested doing that during the last parliamentary budget debate on October 2013. There will be another opportunity next month.

Najib’s One Thousand Days
            Najib’s thousandth day in office went unheralded. Not even he took notice, and for good reason. He had nothing to show for it. In a speech Najib was forced to defend his 1Malaysia.
            “It is a philosophy, not a mere slogan,” he insisted. Poor fellow, when you have to defend or clarify what you mean three years on, it could not have had much of an impact.
            By his thousandth-day Najib had forgotten or ignored his earlier “courageous” move to liberalize the economy. He was back to his bribing ways, offering RM400 million to the mostly Malay bus companies’ owners. Despite many more and ever generous giveaways to buy his way into the election, Najib fared worse than Abdullah.
           
Najib Outlasting Abdullah
            A few days before Najib exceeded Abdullah’s tenure, Teoh’s death haunted Najib again. To recap, a lower court had earlier declared an open verdict, meaning, no one was at fault, incredulous though that may seem. The family appealed, and a few days ago in a landmark and unanimous decision, the Appeals Court set aside that verdict.
            The court went beyond and declared that his death was caused or accelerated by unlawful acts by individuals unknown, inclusive (my emphasis) of MACC’s officials. Justice Mohamad Ariff asserted that the interests of the family and the public required the case to be further investigated. Justice Ariff is indeed Yang Arif, the honorific exclusive for judges. It means wise and knowledgeable.
            That is a rare public rebuke from an increasingly assertive and independent judiciary; a good omen for Malaysia but a bad one for Najib.
            That was not the only past to haunt Najib. His earlier commitment to do away with the sedition and internal security acts was exposed for the fraud that it was when he charged his prominent critics, including law professor Azmi Sharom, for sedition.
            The Economist was wrong when it concluded that those charges hurt Najib’s image as a reformer. The man was never one. That tag merely reflects smart packaging, like his earlier string of high-profile international “interviews” later exposed to be unabashed infomercials. Even CNN and the venerable BBC were snared.
            Najib’s memory must be faulty as he is oblivious of these inconsistencies. This May he vowed “no bailouts” for beleaguered Malaysia Airlines. Today he declared the over six billion-ringgit infusion as “investment” and equating it to a patriotic duty!
            Kata di kota, goes an old Malay wisdom, but with Najib, kata di lupa. Our word (kata) must be as dependable as a fort (kota); otherwise forget (lupa) it.
            Malaysians cannot forget Najib as his image appears everywhere, rivaling the gaudiness and ubiquity of North Korea’s “Dear Beloved Leader.” Malaysians can however ignore him, and they are doing just that.
            Former Law Minister Zaid Ibrahim sums up Najib best. Referring to Najib’s questioning the opposition’s “loyalty” to the Sultan of Selangor, Zaid wrote on September 8, 2014, two days after Najib exceeded Abdullah’s tenure in office, “This cheap political trick … should not come from a Prime Minister. … Instead of telling the people … the complexities of democracy and how constitutional monarch and political leaders should conduct themselves, the PM took the lazy route of inflaming the feelings of the Malays …. For a man who talks about the great transformation for the country, this is irresponsible conduct and most disappointing.”
            Malaysians cannot ignore an irresponsible leader. That would be height of irresponsibility.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Time To Sell Or Liquidate Malaysia Airlines


Time To Sell or Liquidate MAS

M. Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

  

When I think of the many needed functions of government, owning or running an airline is not one of them. Instead, taking care of the health, welfare and security of its citizens should rank way up there.

             Once you have done an excellent job in those essential areas and still have extra time, talent or resources, then you could consider running an airline. A humble and conscientious leader would never be satisfied when it comes to serving the public, for no matter how excellent a job he may be doing there will always be room for improvement. The Finns have the finest schools yet their leaders are consumed with improving the system. That is what progress means.

             Malaysia once again contemplates pouring billions to rescue Malaysia Airlines (MAS). Apart from consuming a never-ending amount of scarce and expensive government resources, the company receives an inordinate degree of attention at the highest level of the Najib Administration. I would have preferred that those leaders be concerned with our deteriorating schools and universities, or the awful delivery of our public services. On the day of the news of the proposed MAS bailout, there was another headline on a fire at the waste dump in Klang Valley.

             Not being a vendor, customer, employee, or shareholder of MAS (that’s 95 percent of Malaysians and 99 percent of Malays), I could not care less if the formerly blue-chip company is sold or liquidated. I am however saddened that the University of Malaya is now third-rate, and falling fast. I am even more dismayed that there is no comparable bailout plan to rescue it or the education system generally.

            The future of Malaysia or Malaysians (especially Malays) does not depend on Malaysia Airlines. Nor does the fate of the company reflect adversely on the caliber or future of Malays, Malaysians, or Malaysia. Our schools and universities on the other hand do determine the future of our people and society.


            Malaysia does not need MAS to project the nation’s image abroad. Besides, the image MAS now projects is of the worse kind. Malaysia also does not need MAS to bring in tourists. The other airlines including Air Asia do a fine job at that, and at no cost to the government. Malaysians do not need MAS for their international travels. You can choose from a dozen airlines to fly from Kuala Lumpur to San Francisco. In fact MAS no longer flies to the west coast of America.


            There can only be one prudent decision on what to do with MAS now after all the repeated expensive and unsuccessful bailouts and reorganization exercises. Sell it or declare bankruptcy, with a view of total liquidation.

 

MAS Now But A Shell Company

            After its “successful” WAU (Widespread Asset Unbundling) manouver a decade ago, MAS today is but a shell company, burdened with tons of liabilities. Even its brand is now tarnished. That leaves only its traffic rights as assets. I reckon there would be few takers for its slots in Buenos Aires and Mexico City.

            We should not be squeamish about or be ashamed of bankruptcy; it is an integral part of business. No enterprise is guaranteed to be a success.

            Swiss Air, once dubbed the “Flying Bank” because of is solid finances, went bankrupt in 2002. Nobody would conclude negatively from that the business acumen or executive talent of Swiss managers. The more relevant lesson for Malaysia from the Swiss bankruptcy is this. The company’s entire top management was prosecuted for alleged criminal misconduct. They were found not guilty; nonetheless they were made to go through the wringer. A thought should MAS file for bankruptcy.

             Japan Airlines, another government-linked company, also filed for bankruptcy. Today it is flying high after its reorganization. The venerable Pan Am, the very icon of a once glamorous industry, too was done in; likewise all the major legacy US airlines (Delta, United, American). Neither Japanese nor American pride was dented. Life (and business) goes on.

            Malaysians need an airline, a safe and reliable one without regard as to who owns or runs it. If MAS is liquidated, other airlines would fill in the void. That is the law of the marketplace. Government intervention would only distort this reality, and then only for so long. Despite Air India, also a GLC, Emirate Airlines is the de facto official airline of India.

            Instead of spending the one and a half billion ringgit buying the rest of MAS shares, and many billions more to “rehabilitate” the airline, Khazanah should sell the company and use the resources to enter a new line of business, such as private education and healthcare. There is certainly a great need for both not only in Malaysia but also the region.

            If I were running Khazanah, I would direct MAS management to settle quickly with its insurers over the loss of its two planes, and distribute the proceeds as dividends and then promptly declare the airline bankrupt. That way it would have recouped part of its bad investment.

             American Airlines posted its biggest quarterly “profits” from the insurance settlement of its DC 10 that crashed on take-off from O’Hare in 1979. However with MAS today, thanks to that “brilliant” WAU scheme, both planes were probably owned by another company with MAS leasing both back. So the insurance payments would go to that company instead of MAS!

            In a statement referring to the proposed MAS reorganization Najib said, “Only through a complete overhaul of the company can we deliver a genuinely strong and sustainable national carrier.” He went on to say that renewal involves painful steps and sacrifices from all parties.


            What Malaysia needs desperately is for Najib to overhaul his administration. Getting rid of MAS would be a great first step in that direction. Unfortunately Najib is incapable of undertaking that. He just does not have what it takes to lead the nation.


            Najib’s leadership, like MAS shares, is penny stock quality. MAS is an apt metaphor for Najib, except that Najib was never blue chip to begin with.

 

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Pamper Those At Home, The Ones Abroad Will Soon Return



M. Bakri Musa
(www.bakrimusa.blogspot.com)


A review of Ruslan Khalid’s Quest for Architectural Excellence. A Malaysian Experience. Marshall Cavendish, Singapore, 2013. 308 pp. US$35.00; RM44.90.

During World War II, British aviation experts were consumed with analyzing and fixing returning warplanes that had been fired upon, until it was pointed out that those damages were not critical as the planes could still fly. It was counterintuitive but logical; if you want to study critical damages, you examine downed planes.

            Last year, the Talent Corporation spent RM65 million on Malaysian professionals abroad to entice them to return. It may be counterintuitive but the money would be better spent on those at home so they would not even consider leaving. If they are happy, the good word would spread, enticing those abroad to return.

            Our wise elders counseled us of the trap of kera di hutan di susukan, anak di rumah mati kelaparan. (breastfeeding the monkey in the jungle while letting your child at home starve to death.)

            An emigrating family, like Tolstoy’s unhappy family in Anna Karenina, is unique in its own way. Thus instead of studying “big data” on the brain drain, it would be more fruitful to analyze individual cases, not those who emigrate but the ones who return or stay.

            One such professional was the late architect Ruslan Khalid. He died in November 2012, only days after final-proofing his autobiography, Quest For Architectural Excellence. The Malaysian Experience.


Product of London’s AA School of Architecture

Ruslan graduated from London’s prestigious Architectural Association (AA) School of Architecture, and had a successful practice in London before returning home late in 1979. Among his clients while there was the Sultan of Pahang.

            His final dozen years or so in Malaysia took only about a third of his 308-page book. Those running Talent Corporation would learn more from reading those pages than they would from gallivanting around the world enticing Malaysians to return. It would also be a lot cheaper, and the book is an enjoyable read, quite apart from being informative. Ruslan wrote well, with elegance and passion. He also immersed himself into the upper crust of British artistic society, and we get a glimpse of that as a bonus.

            Ruslan dedicated his book to “all late starters.” Presumably he considered himself one. On the contrary as is evident from the book, he was intelligent, insightful, and very resourceful. Those qualities however, were not recognized early or at all by his native country, nor are they readily assessed on a paper-and-pencil test.

            He obtained only (his description) Grade II in his School Certificate Examination in 1952 and a scholarship to a third-rate British architectural school. He recognized that stark reality on his very first day on campus. For an institution to train designers of buildings and structures, the edifice was anything but inspiring. It was like entering a hospital or medical school where the foyer was dirty and ambience unhygienic; you have to be desperate to have any trust or confidence.

            It reflected the foresight of his colonial interviewers that they awarded him a scholarship despite his Grade II; they saw his potential. After all he entered English school only two years earlier having previously attended only Malay and religious schools. It also reflected the wisdom of his teachers then that he had to take English classes at his Islamic school. Where are those educators today?

            On his voyage to England he bunked with three top-scorer students. By the time they reached Bombay, he had already befriended a certain lady from the First Class deck while the other three were content jabbering among themselves. As luck would have it, she was the wife of a famous architect besides being one herself.

            With uninspiring lecturers in a third-rate institution, Ruslan flunked his second year. Undeterred and confident of his talent, he pursued his craft through the old apprentice system. His portfolio, together with his contacts with many well-known architects, later paved his way into AA School as an advanced student on a British scholarship.

            All these are interesting preamble. My interest however, is on enticing successful Malaysians to return, or what make them leave. So I will focus on this native son’s travails at home upon his return late in life.


Disappointments At Home

Despite having been a practicing architect for over a decade in London, his application for registration in Malaysia was summarily denied. He did not have the prerequisite two years of local public service. Not wishing to be desk-bound in some ministry, he opted for Universiti Teknoloji Malaysia. After all he had been a senior lecturer in London.

            The ending was predictable, and came soon. He left after the minimum two years to pursue private practice, which led him to be editor of his professional association’s journal. He soon discovered that his profession at home was handmaiden for developers and the journal he edited was more advertising channel for the industry rather than advancing the art and science of local architecture.

            I can attest to that. In 1977 my wife and I engaged a famous architect in Kuala Lumpur to design our dream house. We chose him because his name was similar to mine, and with his foreign wife I thought he would appreciate our aspiration. We wanted a wooden house with local fruit trees for landscaping. Imagine our surprise when he answered our every query with, “Yes, we can do that!” without offering alternatives or critiquing our ideas.

            Then at a public housing exhibition I encountered the firm of Goh Hock Guan; it had won first prize in that competition with its wooden house design. We chose it, and to our surprise were assigned to a young Malay associate. Surely he had been sent abroad on a government scholarship and thus should be pushing papers in one of those ministries, I thought.

            Esa Mohamed too answered all our questions but he also warned us that while he was enthusiastic about our project, our house would have little resale value as it was not mainstream design. We nonetheless proceeded and were enthralled with his creation! Unfortunately by this time I had already decided to leave. We paid his fees and kept the blueprint. Esa went on to have a very successful career.


Thwarted Academic The Second Time

Back to Ruslan, a few years later UPM opened its architectural faculty. Eager to train future architects in his mold, he became its founding dean. Again the quick and predictable ending! Despite being on the Sultan of Pahang’s polo team and Prime Minister Mahathir’s riding companion, quite apart from having a half-brother in the cabinet, Ruslan was, as he wrote, “relieved of his duties.” Mahathir offered his services to have him reinstated, but bitten twice, he politely declined.

            The one incident during his deanship was symptomatic of the country’s malaise and obsession with praises from foreigners. He had fought hard to improve the academic facilities when, unbeknown to Ruslan, the Vice-Chancellor hired a British consultant. As it turned out Ruslan knew him. Consequently the report was full of praise and confidence of the faculty’s future under Ruslan’s leadership. The VC used that as an excuse to deny Ruslan’s request, deeming that the faculty was fine as it was!

            Again I can relate to that. As a surgeon in Johor Baru 1978 I fought hard to upgrade the hospital to be worthy of a teaching institution. Then came a British delegation sponsored by the ministry. At the exit conference the British spokesman could hardly restrain himself in praising our facility, egged on by the beaming smiles of local officials.

            When he finished I spoke up. I told him that much as I appreciated his generous remarks, he had effectively undercut my efforts. The ministry would now not approve my request seeing that our facility was already doing well. Then to drive home my point, I told everyone that I had never been to a British teaching hospital, but if they were impressed with our facility, then I did not think highly of their standards.

            At the end of the meeting one of the surveyors sought me to apologize. I told him it mattered not as the damage had been done and that he surely would be invited again for the next survey, unless of course he was willing to submit an amended report.

            These ugly realities would never be uncovered in glitzy official reports or expensive consultants’ surveys; hence the need for personal accounts as with Ruslan Khalid’s In Quest for Architectural Excellence.

            Ruslan Khalid is now gone, may Allah bless his soul and put him among the righteous. Architect Ruslan bequeathed his extensive portfolios; native son Ruslan, this thoughtful and insightful autobiography. Malaysia would be poorer if it does not heed his wisdom.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Growing Up With A Nation That Isn't

Growing Up With A Nation That Isn’t
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com



Book review of Ahmad Kamil Jaafar’s Growing Up With The Nation. Marshall Cavendish, Singapore, 2013. 256 pp. RM135

The life of a diplomat, as the laity sees it, is one of glittering cocktail parties, spacious residences in leafy exclusive neighborhoods, and being pampered in MAS first-class cabins, all paid for by taxpayers.

            So it was a surprise to read this opening line in Growing Up With The Nation, the memoir of Ahmad Kamil Jaafar, Malaysia’s former top diplomat, “The life of a diplomat and foreign policy maker can be pretty much routine and humdrum during the best of times.”

            Then as if to underscore this point, midway through the book, in the chapter “China – A Transformational Journey,” he writes, “Finding myself with ample free time I tried my hand at learning Chinese … and Chinese brush painting.”

            This was the mid-1980s when China was undergoing, as per the chapter title, transformational changes under Deng Xiaoping. To be bored or have ample free time at such a period reflected more on the caliber of our diplomats generally rather than on Kamil Jaafar’s talent, ability, or diligence.

            It was commendable for Kamil to learn Mandarin. It would have been even more impressive had he done it before being posted there. There was (and is) no lack of opportunities for learning that language in Malaysia. Granted, the Malaysian Chinese accent may be way off the Beijing variety, nonetheless the basics remain the same.

            Kamil Jaafar is privileged to have been given the great opportunity and responsibility to guide the young nation. There are many others, but most are content to spend their retirement collecting lucrative GLC directorship fees and hitting golf balls. Malaysians owe Kamil a huge debt of gratitude for having taken time and effort to recollect his experiences so others could benefit.


Maximal Recollection, Minimal Reflection

Kamil’s memoir, competently written, spans a career of over three decades. He retired in 1996 as the top civil servant in the Foreign Ministry, and then continued on as Special Envoy. He covers vast expanse of water. However, as any scuba diver would tell you, the world underneath is even more rich, challenging and fascinating. Skimming the surface may get you far but at the price of missing this wonderful universe below. Stating it diplomatically, Kamil’s memoir has maximal recollection but at the expense of thoughtful reflection.

            On the rare occasions when he does pause, Kamil is astute and penetrating, revealing much. Recalling a meeting between Prime Minister Mahathir and Chairman Deng, Kamil noted the large spittoon which Deng used only three times during the entire encounter. Kamil congratulated Mahathir, deeming the meeting a success, at least by that criterion. Deng may be a transformational leader of the biggest country, but in mannerisms he was just another coolie. Diplomatically spun, Deng remained faithful to his plebian origin.

            During Abdullah Badawi’s tenure as Foreign Minister, Kamil felt like his ministry was under the Prime Minister’s Department. That reveals volumes as to Abdullah’s capability and contribution. Apparently Abdullah was satisfied if not reveled in being sidelined.

            Abdullah was a special guest at the book’s launching. He obviously had not read the book, or if he did, missed that subtle but devastating jab. Or I could be over reading that passage.

            In a post-publication interview Kamil related how tough he was with his subordinates. I wish he had been equally frank and tough on his political superiors. Did he see any parallel between Abdullah’s performances as Foreign Minister and Prime Minister? As for the other dozen or so foreign ministers Kamil served under, none merited more than just a few bland lines penned in passing. Most were skipped entirely. Perhaps that said it all.

            Of all the prime ministers, only Mahathir did not serve concurrently as foreign minister. Yet Kamil devotes more ink to him than to anyone else. His adoration for Mahathir is unbridled, and evident throughout the book. Yet when Kamil lamented on the poor English of our young diplomats and how that handicaps them professionally, he fails to make the connection. Mahathir is most responsible for this sorry state, first as Minister of Education and later as Prime Minister.

            Mahathir appointed Kamil Secretary-General of the Foreign Ministry; I reckon that has much to do with this uncritical appraisal.
           
            As for that promotion, Kamil recalled his colleagues urging him to decline it, in deference to the incumbent who had been at it for only six months. That reveals the destructive culture of the civil service, this tunggu geleran (patiently waiting your turn), like landing planes at a busy airport. That, more than anything else, is responsible for the anti-meritocratic norms of the civil service. There is no such thing as “fast tracking.”

            Kamil rationalized his acceptance thus:  “I dare not go against the Prime Minister’s decision.” I would have preferred had he asserted that he could do a better job. False modesty is hard to conceal while the genuine form is overrated. Besides, a senior civil servant should never fear of going against his political superior if that is the wise thing to do.

            Kamil had a brief and less-than-laudatory paragraph on Prime Minister Hussein Onn, recalling a meeting involving a sensitive issue related to a neighboring country. Kamil and his counterparts in the Home Ministry including its minister, Ghazali Shafie, had concocted a nefarious scheme the nature of which was not revealed. When they finished briefing Hussein, he became visibly angry and reprimanded them.

            “What you are doing is a bottomless pit. You cannot do to others what you do not want others to do to you,” Kamil quoted Hussein, who ordered an immediate halt. Kamil did not describe his or Ghazali’s reaction to this dressing down.

            Hussein was not known to be a decisive leader but on that occasion when he most needed to be, he was. That brief anecdote epitomized Hussein’s integrity and fair-mindedness. I remind readers that the odious phrase “cronyism, corruption and nepotism” entered the popular Malaysian lexicon only after Hussein left office. As an aside, he was not cited in the index, perhaps an honest slip.

            John Kenneth Galbraith, Kennedy’s political-appointee Ambassador to India, wrote in his Ambassador’s Journal that Kennedy read his (Galbraith’s) dispatches because they were a joy. I assume that most diplomatic communications are not, consumed as they are with being detached and laced with bureaucratese as well as bewildering acronyms. They are also written so as not to offend anyone.

            Kamil no longer needs to be deferential to his former superiors. He should be critical of their performances. He should go beyond lamenting the current sorry state of Malaysia and analyze the “who, what, where, when, why and how.” Which leaders were most culpable for our nation not growing up? If luminaries like Kamil shy away from this crucial responsibility, then by default it would fall on the tin kosong jaguh kampong (empty tin-can village champions). And the nation would be the poorer for that.


Proposed Diplomat’s Assignment

Kamil recalled how as a young diplomat he was clueless as there was no one to guide him. Now having reached the pinnacle of his career, he put forth few ideas to guide his young successors, except for them to improve their English. That in itself reveals volumes on the state of our foreign service.

            To fill this void, I share with our diplomats, young and old, this advice, the one my late father gave me before I left for Canada back in 1963. Observe the country and its people, he counseled me, be perceptive of and receptive to your new environment. Heed the wisdom of our culture, Alam terkembang di jadikan guru (Let the expanding universe be your teacher), echoing Wordsworth’s “Let nature be your teacher.”

            In particular my father asked me to ponder this question:  Why was it that Canada was offering those generous scholarships to young Malaysians and not Malaysia to Canadians?

            Tailoring it to our diplomats, I would advise them thus. Study one feature of your host country that is worthy of our emulation, or conversely, the one to avoid falling into. Our Third Secretary in Venezuela could learn how that country successfully used music to empower poor children and produce superb youth orchestras as well as many accomplished young conductors. Our High Commissioner to Nigeria would warn us of the fate that awaits Malaysia if it does not get a handle on corruption, while that to Pakistan, the dangers if religious extremists were to get the upper hand.

            With that assignment tagged onto their regular duties our diplomats, novice and seasoned, would never again complain of their posting “being routine and humdrum,” or having “ample free time.” Thus occupied, they would not likely get themselves into mischief or otherwise embarrass the nation.


Bakri Musa’s memoir, Cast From The Herd. Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia, is due out in 2015. www.bakrimusa.com.