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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Malaysia's Wasted Decade 2004-2014 Exceprt #4

Excerpt #4:  The Future:  From Blue Chip To Penny Stock

Long before the twin tragedies of Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH17 (shot down in eastern Ukraine in March 2014) and MH370 (disappeared literally from thin air over the South China Sea less than four months earlier), the company’s shares were already languishing at the bottom floor of the KLSE at around 22 sen. Yes, that is sen, as in cents, or pennies. Even bottom feeders were shunning MAS shares.

            To think that less than two decades earlier the Mahathir Administration paid RM8.00 for those same shares! Factoring in for inflation and devaluation, it should be about RM32.00 in today’s devalued ringgit. If you add in the expected appreciation as per the KLSE Index, the shares should be trading at around RM100 today.

            From RM100 to 22 sen! Formerly blue chip MAS now a penny stock! It would be cheaper to use MAS shares to wallpaper your bathroom; they are useless for toilet paper.

            MAS shares are an apt metaphor for Malaysia. She too has taken a precipitous drop in value as the result of the toxic leadership of Abdullah Badawi, Najib Razak, and UMNO. I should also add Mahathir; however, he is now long gone though still making some loud but ineffective noises. At any rate, the ugly legacy Mahathir bequeathed upon Malaysia should and would have been ameliorated by now if she had competent and diligent leadership.

            Alas Mahathir’s successors Abdullah and Najib are neither competent nor diligent, and UMNO, the instrument of their leadership, is a corrupt and sclerotic organization, unable to respond to changes. All three are Mahathir’s legacy. That is the heaviest burden Malaysia has to bear.

            The drop in value of MAS shares is readily apparent and easily quantifiable, with the burden borne exclusively by its unlucky shareholders. In contrast, the devaluation of Malaysia, while also readily apparent to citizens, has yet to register on her leaders. They still delude themselves as leading a blue chip nation. The weight of the nation’s devaluation is borne not by them but by Malaysians least able to bear it, the poor. Again let it be said so those self-proclaimed champions of the Malay cause in UMNO and elsewhere can hear it loud and clear, Malays are over represented in that stratum.

            The full magnitude of this devaluation has yet to be appreciated or quantified. Consider my old school The Malay College, dubbed “Eton of the East” by its proud old boys. In the 1960s it prepared its students well for universities. Today it is but an expensive glorified middle school; its students have to go elsewhere to matriculate. This sorry state was reversed only recently with the introduction of its International Baccalaureate program.

            On a more general level, in the 1980s there were still many Chinese parents who enrolled their children in national schools. Today even Malays are deserting that stream in ever increasing numbers, with both opting for Mandarin schools instead.

            In the 1980s I could still gather a few Malays at Stanford to invite them to my home for Hari Raya celebrations; today there are no Malays there and few at the other elite campuses.

            In late 1990s a young Malay doctor who had graduated a decade earlier from the University of Malaya (UM) did sufficiently well in her US Medical Licensing Examination to be accepted at a top American hospital for her specialty training. That reflected her superior undergraduate medical education. Today, the British Medical Council had long ago withdrawn its accreditation of UM’s medical faculty. Yet that did not stop the university’s leaders from deluding themselves that their institution could be among the top global 100 within a few years. Not to be outdone, the vice-chancellor of another public university bragged about his institution aspiring to be the “Harvard of the East,” within a decade!

            As is apparent, Malaysia has no shortage of her Walter Mittys, or his local counterpart, the Mat Jenins.

            That is only the education sector. For the greater economy, in the 1970s Malaysia was able to finance its ambitious and highly successful rural development schemes like FELDA, as well as expand her schools, without resorting to any borrowing, local or foreign. Today, public and private debts threaten to sink the nation and its citizens.

            As for FELDA, while Malaysia brags about floating the biggest global IPO with its Felda Global Holdings(FGH), bigger in valuation than even Facebook, for a reality check, visit its settlements. The roads are still unpaved while the homes lack electricity and potable water. The schools on those settlements are an embarrassment. Oil palm, the foundation cash crop, is still being harvested in the old back-breaking and neck-stretching labor-intensive ways of the 1960s. There is little or no innovation; no hydraulic lifts or mechanical harvesters to relieve the onerous and treacherous human burden.

            On the macro level, in the 1970s the Malaysian ringgit was on par with the Singapore dollar. Today the ringgit vies with the rupiah and rupees. Soon Malaysians would be trading in millions just for their daily bread. I suppose that is one way for the nation to brag about having many millionaires.

            As for security, Malaysian homes are now fortified fortresses, with armed guards at road entrances. Malaysians are well advised not to don expensive watches or wrist bracelets if they value their hands. Malaysian borders are as porous as fishing nets. At least those nets trap the big fish; Malaysian borders let them in and out, their pathways greased by the devalued ringgit.

            I am belaboring a point here. These are all painfully obvious to the average Malaysian. My doing so is merely to illustrate in tangible and graphic terms readily comprehensible by kampong folks the devaluation of Malaysia that is the consequence of the toxic trio of Abdullah Badawi, Najib Razak, and UMNO. They will continue to spew their lethal brew onto Malaysia at least until the next general election, due no later than June 2018. For those now burdened by their poisonous brew, that is a long time away. In nation-building however, that is only a blink of the eye. I am optimistic that positive change will come with that election if the process can be kept honest. Then Malaysians will have a chance for change.

Excerpt #5:  Two Black Swans and Many More Dark Crows

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Malaysia's Wasted Decade 2004-2014

Excerpt #3:  Intra Racial (Specifically Intra-Malay) Conflict The Greater Threat

In an inaugural Millennium Essay for The New Straits Times (November 1999) I wrote, “The greatest threat to Malaysia’s social stability is not inter-racial confrontation rather intra-communal, specifically among Malays.” There are three potential fault lines along which Malays could fracture:  religious, cultural, and socioeconomic. Conflict on any one is unlikely to trigger a severe crisis but a confluence of any two or all three could be cataclysmic.

            Interracial conflict is bad, and Malaysians already had a taste of it many times. The May 13, 1969 incident was only the most bitter. Bad as it was, the intra-ethnic or intra-racial variety would be far worse. More Arabs had been killed by their fellow Arab brethrens than by the Israelis. The carnage of the 1956 Arab-Israeli War pales in comparison to the current intra-Arab strife in Syria.

            Divisions between Malays and non-Malays are over tangible issues, as with scholarship quotas, employment preferences, and economic set-aside programs. Those are what Hirschmann referred to as “divisible conflicts,” potentially solvable through negotiations. Differences within Malays on the other hand are over cultural values, theological beliefs, and way of life. These are more difficult if not impossible to resolve. If a pious kampong Malay feels that a proper Muslim woman must don her hijab while her urbane secular-minded sister disagrees, you cannot readily resolve that difference. A compromise as with donning half a hijab would not resolve it.

            The first half of this wasted decade was helmed by Abdullah Badawi; he has now exited the stage before he could inflict even more damage. Today Malaysia is burdened with his successor, Najib Razak, who is equally intent in destroying the nation through his ineptness and willful neglect.

            In my book The Malay Dilemma Revisited (1999) I wrote this of Abdullah. “He would be Malaysia’s Jimmy Carter, an honorable enough man but a totally ineffectual leader.” I was half right, in his being ineffectual. As for Najib, “[It] is difficult to evaluate as he carries the burden of his famous father . . . . [O]bjectively, it is hard to find Najib’s mark.”

            Mahathir was still sharp and in power when I made those observations but he was too close to Abdullah and Najib to read them the way I did.

            When Mahathir named Abdullah the country’s eighth Deputy Prime Minister in 1998, the reaction was a yawn or two at most. Mahathir had had three previous deputies, and expectations were that his fourth would end up like the rest, being replaced and denied the top slot.

            However, when Mahathir announced his sudden resignation, the realization set in that Abdullah Badawi would succeed him. Like sheep, Malaysians accepted that and shifted allegiance to their new shepherd-to-be, and the accolades began pouring in. The man’s apparent lack of gross flaws normally associated with politicians only increased his halo, and quickly blotted out the more pertinent point that he lacked executive or leadership talent. The time too was opportune for Abdullah for by this time the nation had grown weary of Mahathir. They wanted change and overlooked Abdullah’s shortcomings. He also benefited from this cultural trait of Malaysians; they are over generous with a new leader and wanted him to succeed.

            Despite the glowing praises, Abdullah Badawi was as hollow as a beetle-infested palm trunk. Many mistook him for a samping sutra (golden cummerbund) when he was but a common cotton sarong pelekat. Abdullah’s leadership was detached, incompetent, and irrelevant. He was unfit to lead the country.

            Najib’s early pronouncements upon assuming office in October 2009 made me question my initial skepticism of him. Alas, it did not take long for him to live up (or down) to my low expectations of him. Top-heavy Najib is busy spinning himself just to remain standing, and he confuses that fast circular motion as rapid advancement.

            The commentaries in this book, written from January 2008 to December 2013 during the tenure of these two leaders, are grouped in four themes, each dealing with Abdullah, Najib, UMNO (the dominant partner in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition), and the Labu and Labi (the comedic team in P. Ramlees’ movies) dysfunctional duo of Najib and Muhyiddin.

            I conclude on a cautionary note. My worse fear is that Malaysia would end up as a Pakistan and Nigeria combined, wrecked with religious intolerance and extremism while its economy and social structure crumbled under the weight of corruption. Like its flagship Malaysia Airlines, formerly Malaysia Airline System or MAS (Malay word for gold), the country too has lost its lustre. Like the company’s shares, formerly blue chip Malaysia is today a penny stock.

            Reflecting the evolution of my thoughts, within each section I have arranged the essays chronologically.

            I derive no pleasure in penning these critical commentaries. I would prefer writing complimentary columns extolling the virtues and accomplishments of Malaysian leaders. At least then Malaysians could benefit and I could glow in the reflected glory.

            My earlier essays had been compiled in two previous books, Seeing Malaysia My Way (2004) and Moving Malaysia Forward (2008). I thank readers for their comments. Space does not permit me to include some of the more perceptive responses and robust rebuttals as I did in Seeing Malaysia My Way.

M. Bakri Musa
Morgan Hill, CA
December 2014

Next Week:  Excerpt #4:  From Blue Chip T.to Penny Stock

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Malaysia's Wasted Decade 2004-2014 #2

Excerpt #2  The Decay Long In The Making

            Abdullah and Najib squandered Malaysia’s precious first decade into the new millennium. It was a wasted if not lost decade. It would be academic to judge who is worse, Abdullah or Najib. When both scored “Fs”, it matters less whether one is F minus and the other simply an F.

            There is little prospect for change, at least until the next election due no later than mid 2018. Even if there were to be divine intervention, Najib’s deputy, Muhyiddin, is no better. Malaysia is doomed; it cannot escape its present sorry trajectory.

            If nations do not progress, then ipso facto they regress. Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable, noted Martin Luther King. Corruption in Malaysia is now approaching the “tipping point” where it would be irreversible and permanently cripple the nation a la Nigeria. Meanwhile religious fanaticism continues unabated, abetted by Najib and his deputy. That too may soon reach the point of no return when Malaysia would be another Pakistan. Then Malaysia would be a Nigeria and Pakistan combined, wrecked with crippling corruption and haunted by religious fanaticism.

            Those two challenges are crippling enough but there are others, as with the deteriorating institutions. In the judiciary, even senior judges think that their job is to protect their paymaster, the government. Likewise, the Election Commission sees itself as an agency of ruling Barisan coalition.

            All these are obvious to ordinary citizens; they do not need reminders from august bodies like the UN. Its Human Development Index showed that Malaysia improved by 1.05 percent in the decade of 1980-90; and 1.12 from 1990-2000. During the decade 2000-13, it grew only half as much (0.58), justifying my calling it the wasted decade.

            The UNHDP Index is buried amongst the tons of all-too-frequent glowing reports by foreign consultants and international bodies, all paid for handsomely by the government of Malaysia. It took a catastrophic tragedy as with the disappearance of Malaysian Airline Flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014 to expose on the world stage the nation’s inattentive military radar operators and bumbling ministers. Malaysian leaders could not answer even simple questions from the families of the victims.

            In fairness to Abdullah and Najib, the rot did not develop overnight. The Malaysia of today is still burdened by Mahathir’s legacy, quite apart from his role in anointing Abdullah and Najib.

            This is Malaysia, so the race factor is never far from the surface. Already Muhyiddin, Najib’s deputy and presumptive successor, is threatening the nation with another “May 13,” the horrific race riot of 1969. That is Muhyiddin, always looking back, never forward. His is the collective mindset and caliber of UMNO leadership, consumed with fighting the last battle.
            The issues they should be confronting are far different. Rampant corruption, deteriorating institutions, vicious religious extremism, and an entrenched rentier economy, among others, are what would doom Malaysia.

            Although the racism and ethnic viruses can easily be reactivated (look at Northern Ireland and the Balkans), Malaysia has a low probability for another interracial conflagration of the 1969 variety despite attempts by the likes of Muhyiddin to scare citizens, especially non-Malays.

Excerpt #3: Intra-racial (Specifically Intra-Malay) Conflict Greater Threat Than Inter-racial

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Malaysia's Wasted Decade 2004-2014 #1

Malaysia’s Wasted Decade 2004-2014.  The Toxic Triad of Abdullah, Najib and UMNO Leadership

Excerpt #1:            Losing Their Messiah

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad stunned his followers when he announced his resignation at his UMNO’s General Assembly in June 2002. He had been in office for over 22 years. The unexpected announcement triggered mass hysteria among his followers. Senior ministers and party leaders openly wept, and pandemonium broke out in the hall.

            The scene resembled a chicken coop at dusk when the birds were settling down in their comfort zone when suddenly their head rooster flew the coop, or attempted to. The cacophony settled down and calm returned only after senior leaders cajoled Mahathir to delay his retirement until October 31st the following year, and he agreed.

            That collective hysteria and mass crying were reflective of how dependent UMNO members were on Mahathir. He was their messiah, and now he was abandoning them.

            Mahathir anointed Abdullah Badawi as his successor, and five years later Najib Razak took over from Abdullah. The handover from Mahathir to Abdullah went smoothly, with both formally dressed in their traditional Malay baju and samping sutra as they smiled and shook hands while exchanging the instrument of office in front of the King. The next day Prime Minister Abdullah awarded Mahathir and his wife the nation’s highest honor, the Tunship.

            The shift from Abdullah to Najib five years later also went smoothly, at least on the surface, with beaming smiles all around. Prime Minister Najib also awarded Abdullah his Tunship, as well as one to his new wife who had no discernible service to the nation. That seeming cordiality and civility however could not mask the earlier intrigue and shadow plays engaged by both leaders.

            Abdullah and Najib may have been consumed with their own shadow play nonetheless there was no mistaking who was the master puppeteer. Mahathir directly picked Abdullah, and then forced Abdullah to choose Najib.

            Soon upon assuming office, Abdullah sought a mandate and secured an overwhelming victory in 2004, eclipsing and embarrassing Mahathir’s less-than-stellar performance in 1999. Abdullah’s boys (his advisers were all males) made sure that no one missed the comparison. Being amateurs and new to the game, they treated their victory as the ultimate trophy and failed to capitalize on it.

            They or rather their patron Abdullah paid dearly for that neglect. In the following election of 2008, his coalition suffered a humiliating setback. It was returned to power but with a hugely reduced majority at the federal level, while losing five states to the opposition.

            Mahathir saw his error with Abdullah soon after the latter took office. Even Abdullah’s 2004 impressive electoral win did not persuade Mahathir otherwise. That victory however, blunted Mahathir’s withering criticisms, reducing him to a grumpy old man. With Abdullah’s subsequent electoral setback, Mahathir was emboldened and his criticisms gained traction, amply aided by Abdullah’s own inept performance. His forced ignominious resignation in October 2009 gave way to Najib, with enthusiastic support from Mahathir, at least initially.

            Mahathir is a poor judge of talent and character. His initial enthusiasm for Najib, as with Abdullah, was misplaced and soon soured. When Najib subsequently suffered an even worse electoral humiliation than Abdullah in the May 2013 election, Mahathir ratcheted up his scorn for Najib, labeling him a “weak leader.” He openly expressed his regret for his earlier support for Najib and publicly rebuked him. To date, a much older and less vigorous Mahathir has yet to be successful in undoing his error with Najib. Malaysia remains cursed with Najib’s clueless and rudderless leadership.

Next:  The Decay That Was Long in the Making


Thursday, April 02, 2015

Malaysia's Wasted Decade 2004-2014


The Toxic Triad of Abdullah, Najib, and UMNO Leadership

By M. Bakri Musa


Library of Congress Catalogue No:  2014914568
ISBN  13 978 1500776305  Indexed 308 pp; US $14.95
Now available on online stores like Amazon.com

Back Cover:
The tragedy of state-owned Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH370 that disappeared amidst mystery and without trace over the South China Sea on March 2014 exposed to the world the gross incompetence and lackadaisical attitude of Malaysian officials, from senior ministers dismissive of pleas from victims’ families to radar operators uncurious of strange intruding beeps on their screens. Malaysians have long endured these; their surprise was that the world was surprised.
            These essays chronicle the continued erosion of Malaysia’s once reliable institutions, the corrosion of its economy through endemic corruption and crony capitalism, and the polarization of its citizens along race, region and religion. These are the crippling consequences of the toxic leadership of the triad of the vacuous Abdullah Badawi, rudderless Najib Razak, and the sclerotic ruling party, UMNO. Not an auspicious beginning as Malaysia enters the new millennium.
            Malaysia’s flagship airline MAS is an apt metaphor. Formerly blue chip, it is now a penny stock; likewise the nation. As with the mystery of Flight MH370, Malaysia’s myriad problems remain unattended.

      Introduction     9
      Part I:  The Vacuous Abdullah Badawi    18
      Part II:  The Rudderless Najib Razak      94
      Part III:  The Labu and Labi Team of Najib and Muhyiddin  220
      Part IV:  The Dinosaur That Is UMNO   246
      The Future – Blue Chip To Penny Stock  283
      Acknowledgments   304
      Index  306                                                       
      About the Author     324

About the Author:
Bakri Musa is a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. Malaysian-born and Canadian-trained, he left his native country in 1963. He keeps a close track of the social and political developments in Malaysia, including a 30-month stint as a surgeon there from 1976-78.
            He has given presentations on Malaysian affairs at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, The University of Buffalo, and Rochester Institute of Technology. Apart from scientific articles in scholarly journals, his lay commentaries have appeared in mainstream Malaysian papers The New Straits Times and The Sun Daily. He was a long-time columnist for the on-line portal Malaysiakini (Malaysia Now) and a regular contributor to Malaysia Today and The Malaysian Insider.
            Beyond Malaysia, his Op-Ed pieces have appeared in The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, and The Far Eastern Economic Review. He has also appeared on National Public Radio’s “Marketplace.” All eight of his previous books have been on Malaysian socio-political affairs, the latest, Liberating The Malay Mind, was released in 2013.
            He is now completing his memoir, Cast From The Herd. Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia, chronicling growing up there. He maintains a blog that also serves as a repository of his essays at www.bakrimusa.com, and www.bakrimusa.blogspot.com as well as on Facebook.
Next Week:  Excerpt #1. Introduction

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Curse With The Obsession With Single-Issue Politics

The Curse of The Obsession With Single-Issue Politics

M. Bakri Musa

We Malays are obsessed – and cursed – with the single-issue politics of bangsa, agama dan negara (race, religion and nation). We have paid, and continue to pay, a severe price for this. Our fixation with those three issues detracts us from pursuing other legitimate endeavors, in particular, our social, economic and educational development. Perversely and far more consequential, our collective addiction to bangsa, agama dan negara only polarizes us.

            We, leaders and followers alike, have yet to acknowledge much less address this monumental and unnecessary obstacle we impose upon ourselves. The current angst over hudud (religious laws) reflects this far-from-blissful ignorance. With Malays over represented in the various dysfunctional categories (drug abusers, abandoned babies, and broken families), and with our graduates overwhelmingly unemployable, our leaders are consumed with cutting off hands and stoning to death as punishments for thievery and adultery. Meanwhile pervasive corruption and endemic incompetence destroy our society and institutions. Those are the terrible consequences of our misplaced obsession with agama.

            If we focus more on earthly issues such as reducing corruption, enhancing our schools and universities, and on improving economic opportunities, then we are more likely to produce a just and equitable society. That would mertabatkan (enhance the status of) our agama, bangsa dan negara on a far more impressive scale.

            Make no mistake, if we remain marginalized or if we fail to contribute our share, then it matters little whether Malaysia is an Islamic State or had achieved “developed” status, our agama, bangsa dan negara will be relegated to the cellar of humanity. Our hollering of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Supremacy) would then be but a desperate and pathetic manifestation of Kebangsatan Melayu (Malay Poverty).

A Historical Perspective

For the first half of the last century, our fixation was, as to be expected, on nationalism. Our forefathers were consumed with the struggle to be free from the clutches of colonialism, and the right to be independent. With merdeka a reality in 1957, the obsession then shifted from negara to bangsa, from merdeka to bahasa (language). Today with Malay language specifically and customs generally accepted as the national norms, our mania has now shifted to agama.

            While our passion for negara and bangsa had a definite and definable endpoint (independence and Malay as the national language respectively), what is the goal with our obsession on agama? ISIS Malaysia? And as for entry into heaven, only Allah knows that.

            We have forgotten, or are unaware in the first place, the price we paid for our earlier obsessions. Consider our nationalistic fervor of yore. While we Malays were consumed with treating the colonialists as white devils and fighting them, non-Malays seized every opportunity to work with and learn from them. In our smugness and misplaced sense of superiority we asserted that we had nothing to learn from those colonials and outsiders, blithely ignoring the obvious evidences to the contrary, just like the Japanese before the Meiji Restoration.

            As a result when independence came, non-Malays were much more equipped to take full advantage of that fact while we Malays were still consumed with endlessly shouting merdeka and rehashing an established reality. A decade later we found ourselves marginalized while the non-natives were busy taking over opportunities left behind by the British. Then like a wild boar caught in a trap of its own making, we lashed out at everyone and everything, with ugly consequences for all.

            It took the brilliance and foresightedness of the late Tun Razak to first of all recognize the underlying pathology and then craft an imaginative and effective remedy.

            As for our struggle for independence, let me inject a not-so-obvious observation. Our merdeka came less from the battles of our jingoistic warriors, more from British realization that colonialism was no longer chic. Indeed it became an affront to their sensibilities. I would be less certain of that conviction had our colonizers been the Chinese or Russians. The Tibetans and Chechnyans will attest to that.

            We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the British for another reason. They cultivated sensible leaders amongst us and dealt harshly with the radicals. Consequently we were blessed with post-independent figures like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Razak while spared the likes of Sukarno and Ho Chi Minh.

            Had we been less arrogant culturally and instead learned from the British, we would have been able to give full meaning to our merdeka. There was much that we could have learned from a nation that ushered in the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Age.

Folly of The National Language Obsession

The May 1969 race riot should have taught us the obvious and very necessary lesson that we must prepare our people well so they could make their rightful contributions and not be left behind. It did not. Instead we shifted our obsession, this time to language. Bahasa jiwa banga (Language the soul of a race), we deluded ourselves.

            With that we sacrificed generations of precious and scarce Malay minds to the altar of the supremacy of Bahasa. We also squandered what precious little legacy the British had left us, specifically our facility with English. Imagine had we built on that!

            Yes, Malay is now the national language, a fact affirmed by all. Less noticed or acknowledged is that while non-Malays are facile with that language they are also well versed in others, in particular English. Not so Malays, with our leaders eagerly egging on our fantasy that knowing only Malay was sufficient.

            With English now the de facto language of science, commerce and international dealings, not to mention the language of global consumers especially affluent ones, our Malay-only fluency is a severe handicap. We are lost or ignored abroad, or even in Malaysia within the private sector. Again we are being left out because of our misplaced obsession.

            The sad part is that we are only now just recognizing this tragic reality. Deputy Prime Minister Muhyyddin (who is also in charge of education) was stunned to learn that our students fared poorly in international comparisons. He is still stunned for he has yet to come up with a coherent solution.

Our Current Delusion with Religion

Judging from the current obsession with hudud, we have learned nothing from our earlier follies with bangsa dan negara.

            Faith is a personal matter. This is especially so with Islam. Our Holy Book says that on the Day of Judgment we would be judged solely by our deeds. We cannot excuse them based on our following the dictates of this great leader or the teachings of that mesmerizing ulama. Islam is also unique in being devoid of a clergy class. There is no pope or priest to mediate between us and Allah, or a prophet who died in order to expiate our sins.
            The now vociferous and overbearing ulama class imposing itself upon us is a recent innovation (bida’a) in our faith.

            As is evident, this obsession with hudud does not bring Muslims together. Far from it! Hudud also creates an unnecessary chasm between Muslims and non-Muslims. Islam should bring us together.

            To Muslims the Koran is the word of Allah, its message for all mankind and till the end of time. That is a matter of faith. While hudud is based on the Koran it is not the Koran. The present understanding of hudud is but the version interpreted by the ancient Bedouins. It is the handiwork of mortals, with all its imperfections. We should not be bound by it but be open to more enlightened readings of the holy book.

            We paid dearly for our earlier obsessions with race and nationalism. What would be the price this time for our fixation with religion? Look at the Middle East today. Ponder Nigeria with its Boko Haram. Contemplate being under the brutal ISIS, the messianic Talibans, or the puritanical Saudis.

            We have yet to recover from our earlier follies with nationalism and Bahasa, yet we blithely continue making new ones with our current obsession on religion. The mistakes we make this time could well prove irreversible.

            Dispense with this public fixation with religion. Instead focus on adil and amanah (justice and integrity), the tenets of our faith. We cannot be Islamic if we are devoid of both. This should be our pursuit, from eminent Malays to not-so-eminent ones, from Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

            If our leaders do not lead us there, then dispense with them and pursue our own path forward. Unlike the earlier colonial era, this time there is no superior power except for Allah to guide us find and groom enlightened leaders. We are on our own. As per the wisdom of our Koran, Allah will not change our condition unless we do it ourselves.

Bakri Musa’s latest book, Malaysia’s Wasted Decade 2004-2014. The Toxic Triad of Abdullah, Najib, and UMNO Leadership, has just been released. It is available at major online outlets like Amazon.com.

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.