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 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.
Malaysian Leaders' First World Education, Third World Mentality
Malaysian Leaders’ First World Education, Third World Mentality
Review of Syed Husin Ali’s Memoirs
of a Political Struggle.
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)
Syed Husin Ali: Memoirs of a Political Struggle. Strategic
Information and Research Development Center, Petaling Jaya, 2013. 273 pp.
The deserved universal condemnation and merciless ridicule of
the Malaysian authorities’ bungling of the MH370 tragedy did not arise in a
vacuum. From leaders’ refusing to entertain questions at their press briefings
to radar operators ignoring intruding beeps on their screens, this unconcealed
contempt for the public, and the accompanying lackadaisical attitude, is the
may have had First World education, alas their mentality remains stubbornly stuck
in Third World mode. Their bebalism
and tidak apaism make the Jamaican
“It’s not my job, mon!” a valid excuse by contrast.
of on-line news portals, I am not stating anything new here; likewise to ordinary
citizens who have had to deal with governmental agencies. However, when these general
inadequacies and gross incompetence in their infinite manifestations are put in
print as in books, there is satisfaction, at least to their authors, that they are
being documented for posterity. So when Malaysia degenerates (as surely it
would) into another Nigeria with its endemic corruption, or Pakistan with
religious fanaticism, scholars would have ample materials upon which to base their
analyses. Until then these accounts serve as a much-needed antidote to the
fluff and gloss that typify Malaysian official reports.
We owe these
authors, from ordinary citizens to seasoned journalists, and opposition activists
to members of the establishment, a huge debt of gratitude when they record
their experiences. Syed Hussin Ali’s reflective autobiography, Memoirs of a Political Struggle, is one
such valuable addition, tracing the nation’s social and political development,
beginning with the decade before independence. Despite the title, the book is
an autobiography more than a memoir.
pedantic readers get past the pedestrian I-was-born opening, the scholar in Syed
Hussin gives us an unsentimental and detached view. As a politician, he details
the many hypocritical ways of his peers. He relates an occasion when he was on
a panel discussion with one Dr. Mahathir at the University of Malaya campus.
Mahathir then was not yet prime minister but headed that way through his rising
popularity as head of UMNO Youth.
chided those “impure” Malay political activists. “Those of Arab descent,” Syed
Hussin quoted Mahathir, “should not have any right to talk about political
issues of this country.”
Hussin’s understated nonchalant riposte was, “I do not wish to talk about
ancestry for otherwise I will have to talk about the rights of those of Indian
with this quote is not to showcase Mahathir’s hypocrisy (readers can readily
find their own far more consequential examples) or highlight Syed Hussin’s
not-widely recognized wit, rather to point out one significant observation.
That is, you will never find such a panel discussion on today’s Malaysian
campuses where contrasting positions would be presented. That is one the many destructive
legacies of Mahathir.
is, quoting Anwar Ibrahim, “in a category of his own, unique in terms of moral
conviction, and not in the business of saying things to please people.” A
sociologist, Syed Hussin gave up his productive academic career to turun padang and get involved in electoral
politics. He is less successful in this second endeavor. Nonetheless with the
victory of his party’s coalition in the last general election, he was appointed
as a Senator from Selangor. A well-deserved appointment!
Ali had a First World education (London School of Economics PhD), but unlike
many in the country similarly blessed, he maintained those First World
qualities. As an academic he was not content resting on his sterling academic
qualification. His pioneering work on social stratification in traditional
Malay society remains widely quoted.
enlightened administration, especially one that professes to champion the
plight of poor rural folks, a man of Syed Hussin’s insight and talent would be
co-opted to play a major role. Alas, UMNO is far from being enlightened, and
its commitment to alleviating rural poverty is more an election gimmick, and a
scheme to enrich its operatives through the many “development” schemes. Thus funds
meant for poor livestock growers are siphoned to buy luxury condos in Kuala
Lumpur and Singapore.
struck me about Syed Hussin. One, his humility, integrity and piety; two, his early
socio-political consciousness, beginning right at primary school; and three,
his thoroughly Malaysian experience and outlook. His rural upbringing in Batu
Pahat, Johore, has much to do with his humility; his religious parents, his
piety; and, being a former King Scout, his integrity.
underwent surgery in Germany, Syed Hussin visited him using his own funds. One
of Anwar’s operatives tried to reimburse Syed by handing him a bundle of $100
US notes, but he would have none of it. Unable to stop the man, Syed gave the money
to his party’s treasurer upon his return. On another occasion, when as a
scholar he was given a UNESCO research grant, he returned to his dean the
unused portion. That’s integrity! Anyone else would finagle a way to present
his paper at the University of Hawaii or Bali with those leftover funds.
grew up in colonial Malaya. To today’s young accustomed to incompetence, cronyism,
and influence peddling, that was an entirely different era. While Syed Hussin did
not hide his nationalistic and anti-colonial streaks, nonetheless that did not
stop the authorities from selecting him to attend a scouting jamboree in
aspect to Syed Hussin’s path is that his schooling, extracurricular activities
and political activism all took place in an environment involving Malaysians of
all races. That was why he was so offended by Mahathir’s remarks at that panel discussion.
Syed embodies the values and aspirations of a truly modern Malaysian.
leftwing leanings began early. In a society obsessed with labels, and where
political sophistication was rudimentary, it was not wise to identify or be
labeled as a socialist, especially when memories of the brutal communist
insurgency were still fresh. Dispensing with labels, what is clear is that Syed
Hussin is committed to social justice, economic equity, and equal opportunities.
What he abhors is leaders betraying their followers’ trust. This betrayal comes
in many guises – greed and its associated corruption, incompetence and its bebalism or tidak apaism, or just plain stupidity and ignorance.
what would be his fate had Syed Hussin dispensed with labels and joined UMNO
like so many like-minded Malays. The Fabian socialists would surely approve of Tun
Razak’s generous redistributionist policies and massive state interventions in
the economy. After all there was a time when the term kaum kapitalis (capitalist hordes) was an epithet hurled by the
likes of UMNO’s Syed Jaafar Albar and Syed Nasir. Today with the spoils of crony
capitalism, socialism is a curse; likewise social justice.
Hussin joined UMNO, would he be as corrupt as the rest or would he be like the
snake that would not lose its venom despite crawling among vines, as per the
Malay proverb? I believe he would the latter, and the nation would have been
richer for his contributions.
I detect a tinge
of regret as Syed Hussin recollects his struggles over these years. Being a
former sociologist, he of course tried hard to conceal his own disappointments.
There is however, no settling of old scores, not even with his old jailors.
There is a touching picture of a smiling Syed greeting his old tormentor from
the Special Branch. That’s class! Contrast that to the vile-filled memoirs of
many recently-retired politicians.
mistake. Syed Hussin is capable of penning moving prose and be passionate in
his writings. I remember reading his Two
Faces. Detention Without Trial, and slamming down the book in anger at the
authorities’ brutal and inhumane treatment of this great intellect and
This was his
poignant ending to the short opening paragraph in Two Faces: “One minute I was
a professor, the next I was a prisoner.” I suppose his fate could have been
worse. Consider that for Egypt’s Morsi it would be, “One minute I was president;
the next, a prisoner.”
generation hence when dysfunctional countries like Egypt would be our peers, we
can look back and realize that there were committed and courageous Malaysians
like Syed Hussin who tried hard to stem the slime. And our descendents would
glow in the reflected glory of his many heroic efforts.
lah ‘Jib! (You are finished, Najib!) You are just another Pak
Lah! Malaysia cannot afford two consecutive incompetent leaders as it enters
the 21st Century. The precious and critical first decade is already
latest “Pak Lah moment” came when his Chief of Police, Khalid Abu Bakar,
threatened to arrest Mariam Mokhtar for sedition over her article, “One
Ideology, Two Reactions,” posted on Freemalaysiatoday.com on November 29, 2013.
Mariam dared to highlight the highly favorable treatment Aishah Wahab, the
woman allegedly held as a slave by her Marxist master in London, received from
the Najib Administration versus the visceral contempt it heaped upon Chin Peng,
leader of the defunct Malayan Communist Party.
suggested that the Najib Administration’s generous gesture to Aishah was more
on exploiting the favorable publicity surrounding that London slavery case.
had better watch out,” the Chief warned, “or we will go after her!” The “her”
is of course Mariam.
Jantan kampung betul! (a real village
bull!), as we say in the village when referring to such petty bullies. The
Chief of Police should display his manhood where it would really count, as with
confronting the Singaporeans spying on Malaysia, those intruders at Lahad Datu,
or the alleged treachery with the loss of Pulau Batu Puteh. Those are the real and
menacing threats to the nation’s security and stability, not the eloquent
writing of a young woman!
Najib and his officials are threatened by Mariam’s ideas. Najib is stuck in the
time warp of the old feudal ways, unable to grasp the new reality of a porous digital
age. He and Khalid should be complimenting Mariam for her ability to write
well, and in English, as well as her courage to express her views.
and Khalid have a better grasp of English, they would have discovered that
Mariam’s earlier essay in Malaysiakini.com,
“Three Slaves and the Rakyat,” on the same case had more punch. In that piece she
noted that while the three London women were imprisoned for three decades,
Malaysians have been “metaphorically imprisoned for the most part of 56 years,”
adding that the three women were shackled by “invisible handcuffs,” just like
is doubtful,” Mariam continues, “if many Malaysians realize the similarities
between themselves and those three women.” Now that’s powerful stuff, but Najib
and Khalid missed Mariam’s well-chosen metaphor and imagery!
Mariam! Your voice is being heard at the highest level, and widely too as
judged by the outpouring of comments both articles elicited. Keep writing! I
hope the police chief and Najib’s other top officials would continue widening their
reading repertoire beyond the UMNO newsletters The New Straits Times and Utusan
is not the first writer to be intimidated by the authorities. She does not need
to be reminded of the horrible experiences of Kassim Ahmad, Syed Hussein, and
Raja Petra, among others.
have nothing to offer Mariam except my best wishes, and I wish her that, and
much more, as with her continued success in writing. I can however, pass on the
advice from that great Indonesian writer, the late Ananta Prameodya Toer, a man
who had endured much from his government.
“Orang boleh pandai setinggi langit,” Pramoedya
wrote in Rumah Kaca (The Glasshouse), “tapi selama ia tidak menulis, ia akan hilang di dalam masyarakat dan
dari sejarah.” (Your intellect may soar to the sky but if you do not write,
you will be lost from society and to history.”
assured that when the collective “invisible handcuff” gets unshackled, as ultimately
it will, Malaysians owe a huge debt of gratitude to brave individuals like
Mariam Mokhtar. As for that police chief, only his family would remember him,
or if remembered by others, he would prefer not to be. Look at his many ‘illustrious’
predecessors; one jailed for punching Anwar Ibrahim, another a defendant in a multimillion-dollar
lawsuit, and a third rewarded by being chairman of a casino. That character apparently
Ultimate Pak Lah Moment
Back to Najib’s other Pak Lah moments, the
supposedly pious and humble Pak Lah squandered millions of taxpayers’ funds to
renovate Sri Perdana before he deemed it livable. This from a man who only a decade
earlier did not even own a house! Najib however, bested Pak Lah on this front. Najib
burned over two million ringgit a year
just on electricity. When citizens complained, he haughtily defended his wasteful
ways by suggesting that his official guests should not have to dine by candle
light! He must have the whole United Nations delegates as his guests, and every
likely Najib must have really turned down the thermostat and then had the
fireplace roaring to simulate the English ambience of his student days so he
could cuddle up to Rosmah.
should remember the advice he received from his prime minister father when he (Najib)
and his brothers were clamoring for a swimming pool at the old Sri Perdana. “What
will people say,” Najib quoted his old man as saying in turning down their
there is the ultra-luxury, custom-fitted Airbus jet. Even Queen Elizabeth and Prime
Minister Cameron do not have one. Pak Lah was severely criticized for his excessive
use of that expensive toy. At least his wife (the first or second) did not get
to use it in her personal capacity. Today we have Mrs. Najib (the second) jaunting
off in it, oblivious of the cost to taxpayers. I do not know which is more reprehensible;
Najib requesting the approval from his cabinet for his wife’s use of the jet or
the cabinet approving it. This at a time when he warned the country is on the brink
Badawi burdened Malaysia for over five years; the nation is still paying for
his many follies and general incompetence. Many claim that Najib is worse than
Pak Lah; that is being petty. When you score is already a miserable F, it does not
really matter whether it is also F-minus.
at this week’s (December 2, 2013) UMNO General Assembly for Najib to execute
yet another Pak Lah moment – reading his “own” pompous self-congratulatory pantun (poem). Do not expect however, for
the delegates to even mention let alone review this critical issue of his glaring
incompetence and profligate ways.
it behooves Malaysians to ensure that this burden of Najib inept leadership comes
to an end soon. Malaysians must force Najib to perform his ultimate Pak Lah
moment – resign!
Sudah lah ‘Jib! You haven’t got what it takes to
lead modern Malaysia.
by the recent national election and overwhelmed by mounting problems, Najib
resorts to the typical tricks of third-rate Third World leaders. He travels abroad
frequently to distract himself and Malaysians, and when at home he bribes his
way through problems.
loss in the popular votes during the last election was only the latest
expression of this lack of confidence in Najib’s leadership. The man has been
coasting on the memory of his illustrious father, Tun Razak. For that reason Malaysians
have been too generous in giving Najib a pass for so long.
cannot go on; the nation can ill afford it. There will be a splendid opportunity
for the nation to be rid of his leadership without having to wait till the next
national election, and that will be the upcoming parliamentary budget debate. All
we need is for a handful of Barisan MPs (12 to be exact) to see through this
character so he can be ejected from the Prime Minister’s seat. He does not
Back to Najib’s third-rate Third World leadership tricks, his
most recent – and most expensive – was the junket that took him through San
Francisco on his way to New York. That was literally around the world. Rest
assured there will be many more such trips in his ultra-luxurious,
custom-fitted full-sized Airbus jet, burning the rakyat’s precious ringgit.
saving grace this time was his uncharacteristic prudence financially in landing
his jet at Oakland instead of at the exorbitantly expensive SFO. Najib however,
more than made that up by staying at the Fairmont Hotel in a suite that would
have pleased the likes of King Saud.
1960s, traveling extensively abroad was also the favorite refuge for
Indonesia’s Sukarno. It was left to his ministers back home to tell the rakyat
to eat rats and thereby simultaneously solve two problems – widespread starvation
and rat infestation.
recently there was the example of Tunisian leader Zine el Abidene, now
languishing somewhere in the Saudi desert with only his ill-gotten wealth to
sustain him. Meanwhile he faces a death sentence at home and the Interpol has a
search warrant for him. As for his wildly extravagant and obscenely
ostentatious wife, a former hairdresser, she too has long ago abandoned him. She
is also on the Interpol list for money laundering. Take a glimpse of her during
her heyday; she has the uncanny resemblance of someone familiar to Malaysians,
and not just in facial features.
fate in contrast was less severe. At least he died and was buried in his native
land. Something for Najib to ponder!
far from being Sukarno’s Indonesia. That however, is setting a very low bar. It
tells us how far we have fallen that the two countries are now often mentioned in
the same sentence. While Malaysia is also infested with rats, Malaysians are
thankfully not starving. Instead what we have are even more rapacious rats continually
raiding the people’s Treasury. The biggest of all is Najib.
Bribing His Way Through
With his unrestrained access to the Treasury, Najib’s mode
of problem solving is to bribe his way. He bribed Malaysians with his multitude
of expensive 1-Malaysia giveaways. Just before the election his largesse became
more targeted, as with his instant generous grants to Chinese schools and
special allocations to East Malaysia. Those bore his trademark of lu tolong gua, gua tolong lu (You
scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours).
bribees everywhere, the Chinese eagerly took the money and ran. Come election
time however, they readily saw through what was going on and unhesitatingly dumped
Najib. Najib the briber was reduced to lamenting loudly of the Chinese tsunami.
Najib mistook the Chinese to be like UMNO Malays, readily bought with only a
few million devalued ringgit. In the end Najib was left scratching himself.
Malaysians were sufficiently grateful for the bribe to vote for Najib, only to
be rewarded post-election with a court order banning them from using the word
“Allah!” I hope that their Barisan representatives in parliament will now stage
their own mini tsunami and flush away Najib.
Malays too are complaining. Again Najib resorted to his favorite trick of
bribing, a few billion here and there under the bombastic package of Memperkasakan Ekonomi Bumiputra (MEB – Strengthening
Bumiputra Economy). Malays this time have shrewdly anted-up their price,
learning from the Chinese. Thus Malays this time are less than enthusiastic with
the only few billion thrown their way, even though that is real money.
that the whole purpose of the New Economic Policy and all its iterations for
the last four decades had been to enhance the economic status of Malays. Obviously
had the NEP been successful, we would have little need for this MEB.
for Najib, even the dumbest ass learns eventually. Malays have smartened up and
realized that this MEB will just be another massive and lucrative bribery
scheme for UMNO cronies. Their beneficiaries may be Malays, the pseudo as well
as wannabe, but they do not represent our values.
are, MEB notwithstanding, this time Malays are no longer mudah lupa. Like the Chinese, Malays (at least the lucky ones) are
becoming shrewder and will readily take the money and then run. Rest assured that
come the next election, there will also be a Malay tsunami.
sooner! The recent UMNO election produced more malcontent losers who will be skipped
by the gravy train. They will be grouchy enough to take their frustrations out on
of various persuasions have already pronounced Mahathir a loser in this UMNO election.
One sure way to make a grouchy loser more so, and thus likely to strike back,
would be for the winners to gloat. Abdullah Badawi too gloated after his spectacular
2004 national victory.
Back to Najib
the briber, he is finally learning a painful lesson. That is, bribees, be they
national or party voters, continue to escalate their price tag, especially if
they know their targets are soft and lucrative. Najib is one such target.
despicable with Najib is that he is using our
money to bribe us, after he takes his
usual generous cut of course! When you bribe a cop, you are using your own
hard-earned cash, not anyone else’s.
It is not
just Malaysians that Najib is bribing. He thinks the rest of the world too is easily
bribable. Soon after becoming Prime Minister, Najib was all over the global
media giving high-profile interviews. Alas those “interviews” were nothing more
than “informecials,” paid crass commercials masquerading as legitimate news
being embarrassed, Najib still revels in the “glory.” That was his mode of
operation. Malaysians were of course embarrassed, as were such media giants as CNN
and BBC once they realized they were being duped. The “journalist” involved was
duly fired, after earning his
millions from Najib. Back in Malaysia, the consultants who thought of the idiotic
scheme were rewarded with even more lucrative public relations contracts. For
them, it was truly “endless possibilities” as well as endless profits with
their desperate-for-praise client, Najib.
recent trip to America, Najib was back in his old form. He addressed the
Commonwealth Club of San Francisco and Harvard Club of New York, among others. Bribing
is illegal in America, except where it is nicely wrapped as “lobbying.”
bribe money has to come from somewhere. Even the Saudi Treasury is finite.
Watch this upcoming budget; Najib will once again squeeze the rakyat, this time
with his Goods and Services Tax together with his scheme for “rationalizing”
subsidies. He will again bribe his way by offering in return, a puny reduction
in the income tax rates.
GST is the
most regressive, meaning it imposes a disproportionately heavy burden on those
least able to afford it. What Najib gives away in sens (pennies) as with his income tax reduction, he will haul back
hundred-fold more through GST.
I hope that
our parliamentarians especially in Barisan will finally see through this man’s façade
and terminate his tenure once and for all, for the good of Malaysia. Muslims
have just celebrated the Eid Qurbani (Celebration of Sacrifice). It is time to qurban Najib for the good of Malaysia.
Then the nation can celebrate!
happens unless Allah wills it, that is, guide Najib to see the light, if not
him, then those parliamentarians.