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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
“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.
not be squeamish about or be ashamed of bankruptcy; it is an integral part of
business. No enterprise is guaranteed to be a success.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
Pamper Those At Home, The Ones Abroad Will Soon Return
M. Bakri Musa
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.
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
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.)
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
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.
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
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.
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
On his voyage
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.
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.
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
After all he had been a senior lecturer in London.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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?
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
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.