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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Name:
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, May 16, 2015

Changing The Malay Narrative


Excerpt #2:  Changing the Malay Narrative
M. Bakri Musa



The colonials imposed upon us and the world their narrative of “the lazy native.” They also spun an equally fictional one for themselves – the superiority of the white man. Both myths were needed to justify their deeds.

            The Japanese shattered that second myth. The sight of the “superior” white men hightailing it, chased by the Japanese on their sardine can-made bicycles, emboldened Malays to take on the hitherto-considered mighty British. That led to our merdeka. As for the first myth, that too would have been busted had the Japanese Occupation lasted longer. There were no lazy natives during the Occupation; the Japanese made sure of that.

            After merdeka, in an ironic twist we substituted our own equally fictional narrative of ourselves. This one, not surprisingly, puts us at the polar opposite of the ‘lazy native.’ We now view ourselves as the privileged “sons of the soil” (Bumiputra). With that we declare our inherent superiority, taking a leaf from the colonials. Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony) is but the latest incarnation of this new narrative.

            Alas, while we may have changed our story, the reality remains the same; we are merely trading one mental coconut shell for another. That is no liberation.

            Like all good fiction, there is just enough truth laced with an exuberance of artistic license to both the old colonial narrative of the lazy native as well as that of our new privileged ‘sons-of-the-soil.’ Also like all good stories, there is an underlying purpose to such narratives, apart from their being good yarns. Discerning that would require us to undertake some introspection and even greater critical analysis.

            The colonialists’ myths of the lazy native and noblesse oblige justified their taking over our country and our rich resources. It also justified their bringing in hordes of indentured labor from India and China. The colonials needed such a narrative to sooth their collective conscience. They further assuaged it by calling us “nature’s gentlemen,” a term only slightly less condescending than “noble savages.”

            What purpose would our narrative of Ketuanan Melayu serve? It is good fiction, as judged by its wide acceptance, much like a “good” dime novel has wide readership. Also like a good novel, this Ketuanan Melayu myth has just enough element of truth to it. We Malays are indeed “natives” of Malaysia; at least we have a better claim to that than the Anglo Saxons have of Australia.

            Perhaps this narrative of Ketuanan Melayu, like those Harlequin novels and soap operas, serves to encourage escapism into a fantasy world. If that were so, the question remains as to what purpose.

            We would not be far wrong if we were to, as the pundits put it, follow the money. Just as those dime novels and soap operas make tons of money for their publishers and producers, so too our narrative of Ketuanan Melayu for its perpetrators.

            It is not coincidental that the shrillest proponents of Ketuanan Melayu are also the most privileged of Malays – the UMNO Putras. These are the ones with palatial bungalows, trophy wives, and children in private schools, all made possible through political patronages, “Approve Permits,” and outright corruption.

            All myths eventually get punctured. That of the lazy native busted under its own weight. Indications are that this has already begun with Ketuanan Melayu. A Malay has difficulty reveling in his exalted privileged son-of-the-soil status around KLCC; he has difficulty finding a restaurant that would serve him rendang.

            Champions of Ketuanan Melayu too sense this impending implosion; hence their preoccupation with creating new conspiracies to bedevil us. First was the hantu of globalization and capitalism. As that did not scare us enough, they concocted hantu pendatang (of immigrants). Meanwhile we are being ensnared by the hantu of religious extremism.

            Humans love a good story; indeed we need it. That also reflects how our brain works. Our mind creates a narrative of ourselves and of the universe, and our place within it. Our mind works hard to make that story consistent. When new information intrudes that does not fit our existing narrative, our brain re-interprets the new information to make it conform. When our version of the world is far detached from reality, we become delusional. That is schizophrenia, a serious mental malady.

            Another feature of the brain that rivals its ability to edit non-conforming information is its tendency to see the whole instead of the parts; hence the dominance of “framing.”

            Just like a portrait can look very different depending on the frame, likewise our perception of reality based on our mental frame. We pick a course of action when it is framed as having an 80 percent chance of success over one with 20 percent chance of failure, despite both expressing the same thing. We drive across town to “save” a dollar even if we have to spend more on getting there.

            Society too can be imprisoned by this framing effect. We Malays framed our dilemmas as one of Ketuanan Melayu instead of our lack of competitiveness, as it should be. All of our subsequent actions are thus “framed” by this mindset.

            This obsession with Ketuanan Melayu and the various hantus distracts us from recognizing and facing our real existential threats – our laggardness in economics, education and other arenas, as well as our deepening polarization and increasing inequities within our community. Intra-racial inequities and polarization worry me more than the inter-racial variety; I fear less another May 1969, more a Malay civil war.

            We also risk being cast aside by global currents. Even once xenophobic China is now embracing globalization and capitalism, to the benefit of its people. In contrast, our obsession with religion puts us right in the target of its extremist elements, turning Malaysia into another Iran or Afghanistan.

            We need a new narrative, one that reflects our true nature and the world we live in. If we were to do so, our actions would be more productive and less disruptive. Even if our new story were to have some fanciful elements, with an open mind, associated humility, and willingness to learn, we could tweak and re-edit it to conform to reality.

            That is what a free mind does. With a closed mind our narrative would calcify, detaching us from reality. We would then distort reality to make it conform to our warped view.

            Liberate the Malay mind, and we topple our coconut shell. Information (freer access to it), education (liberal and broad-based, with competence in science and mathematics), and engagement in trade and commerce (capitalism – the genuine, not the ersatz or rent-seeking variety) are the proven tools to topple our coconut shell and prepare us for the wonderful open world.

            Liberate the Malay mind and those hantus would be exposed for what they are, figments of our wild imagination. A free mind turns crises into opportunities. Liberate the Malay mind and we will re-frame our dilemmas. Liberate our minds and we liberate our world.

            Begin by acknowledging the forces that have kept and are keeping our minds closed. Foremost are the myriad intrusive and repressive rules, the mother of which is the Internal Security Act. Those are instruments of oppression, not liberation. Then there are our schools and universities, intent on indoctrinating rather than educating our young. More entrenched is the corruption of our cultural values where respect for leaders is mistaken as a license for them to indulge at our expense. Most of all we must discard our myopic interpretation of our faith.

            Expose the forces that have entrapped the Malay mind, and we are on our way to liberating it. That essentially summarizes my book. What follows are but elaborations, illustrations, and persuasions.

May 17, 2015

This essay is adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2013

Next week:  Excerpt #3:  Imagining a Different Future

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Merdekakan Minda Melayu (Liberate The Malay Mind)

Merdekakan Minda Melayu (Liberate The Malay Mind)
M. Bakri Musa



Malays need to have minda merdeka (free or liberated mind). We do not need another Melayu Baru (New Malay), Glokal Malay (contraction for global and local), Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony), revolusi mental (mental revolution), and other tired slogans. Those would all be for naught if our collective minds remained trapped with their distorted views of the past and present. Facing the future with a closed mind is not the way either, at least not with any hope for success.

            The famed Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer published his highly-acclaimed Buru Quartet novels soon after his release from Pulau Buru prison. When asked during a book tour in America how he was able to craft such a wonderful work of art while being imprisoned under the most inhumane conditions, Pramoedya replied, “I create freedom for myself!”

            This is what a free mind can do. Your body may be imprisoned and confined to total darkness for 24 hours a day save for a ray of light peeking through the keyhole, as Pramoedya was, but no one could imprison your free mind. Under such cruel circumstances a mind that is not free could easily disintegrate, going wild and berserk, which justifies the continued isolation and inhumane treatment.

            Likewise, Malays must create freedom for ourselves. Merdeka Minda Melayu! (Liberate The Malay Mind!) This should be our new battle cry, its rhythmic resonance and arresting alliteration trumping even Hang Tuah’s immortal Takkan Melayu Hilang Di Dunia! (Malays shall never disappear from this Earth!)

            Implicit in my choice of the title for this book is the recognition that the Malay mind has long been entrapped. The challenges our community has been grappling with all along can directly or indirectly be attributed to the fact that our collective consciousness has been caged and consequently closed off to seeking out new and innovative solutions.

            Contrary to the assertions of many, our problems are not rooted in the presumed deficiencies of our biology or culture. Nor are they caused by colonialism (traditional or the neo-variety), the pendatangs (immigrants), capitalism, globalization, or even our supposed lack of unity. We have been led to believe that these are problems, not opportunities. They will remain so as long our minds are trapped. If we liberate our minds we will then be able to view these challenges as opportunities, and begin to explore them as such. That would be more productive, and the results would be more to our liking.

            We have been addicted to the comfort of life underneath the proverbial coconut shell for far too long. Now with the shell breached by globalization and the digital waves, it is dawning upon us that our “comfort” is anything but. There is a far greater, more open, and definitely wondrous universe out there that we have been missing.

            Life under the coconut shell is no longer sustainable; for many it is already intolerable. We can either topple this shell ourselves or risk having it done by external forces. With the former we would be in command of our destiny; we could choose the timing, manner, and consequently the outcome. With the latter, we would be at the mercy of events and circumstances beyond our control; we would be reduced to being victims, begging for the kindness and benevolence of others.

            Saddam Hussein and his Republican Guards certainly thought they were very comfortable in the desert, secure under their well-camouflaged shells. That is, until those shells were literally blown apart by outside forces.

            The Malay coconut shell cannot be physically destroyed as it is only metaphorical – our closed minds. Besides, with the huge pores already created by globalization and the digital revolution, many have already successfully emerged from underneath that shell. The biggest danger is not so much that our shell will be toppled by outside forces or through agitations from within, rather that the world would ignore and leave us to rot underneath it, with only the mushrooms to sustain us.

            This would be the fate that awaits those with a closed mind. Perhaps we could rationalize that by adopting a “leave us alone” philosophy. Such an option however, is not for us to choose but for others to impose.

            If we do not merdekakan minda kita, that is, liberate our minds, others will define our destiny for us.

            In short, the future of Malays depends on, in Pramoedya’s words, our ability to create freedom for ourselves. We would achieve this goal not through endless and meaningless mass exhortations from our leaders rather individual at a time. A Malay with a liberated mind is his or her own leader. We can dispense with the current crop of leaders with trapped minds.

Adapted from M. Bakri Musa:  Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2013


Next week:  Changing The Malay Narrative

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Malaysia's Wasted Decade 2004-2014


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

            Already one component of the toxic triad – Abdullah Badawi – is gone and no longer heaping his share of trash upon the nation. As for UMNO, despite being the largest party and a ruling one at the federal level for over the past half a century, it never gets a foothold in Sarawak. Of the nine states in the peninsula, UMNO is permanently wiped off in Penang, Kelantan, and Selangor. If the federal territory of Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur were also a state, UMNO would be wiped out there too. At one time it was also out in Perak, Kedah, and Trengganu.

            That leaves only Najib. My earlier prediction of his premature ending as prime minister notwithstanding (see “Priority of Packaging Over Performance’” page 119), he is now secure at the top of the UMNO rubbish heap. To be the unchallenged skipper of the Titanic is no job security; it could very well undermine your well-being.

            I am always amazed at the ability of one person to initiate transformational changes. Often those individuals are the ones we least expect. There is no rhyme or reason for such individuals to emerge except that they somehow appear at the right time and place, with all the right people to help him or her do the right thing in the right manner; in short, the confluence of all the elements and the alignment of all the stars.

            In the 1990s Indonesia was threatened to be ripped apart by its bewildering centrifugal forces. Today it celebrates its peaceful democratic transition with a new and promising leader in Joko Widodo. Further east, who would have predicted back in the 1970s that a diminutive, uninspiring and uncharismatic Deng Xiaoping would dismantle the handiwork of the colossal but destructive Mao Zedong?

            Further east across the Yellow Sea, in the 1950s the South Koreans depended entirely on the spending of the hundreds of thousands of American GIs stationed there. Then came General Park; today Samsung, Hyundai and LG are global household brand names.

            At the same time I do not underestimate the ability of one idiot to wreck untold damage upon a nation while its citizens stand by and let it happen. Nearby there was Indonesia’s Sukarno, further away Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, and in the not-too-distant past, Iraq’s Saddam.

            Thus I do not underestimate Najib Razak to do likewise to the great nation of Malaysia if Malaysians let him. I hope they would not.


            Malaysia suffered through two horrific man-made disasters in the span of just a few months in 2014. The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 over the South China Sea remains a mystery to this day. While we know what happened to Flight MH17, the question remains of why a MAS plane? After all, a Singapore Airlines jet had earlier flown a similar route while an Air India one was only a few kilometers away.

            When a “black swan” (rare, unpredictable) event occurs, it is natural for people to look beyond the realm of the rational for an explanation. This is not an affliction of only the uninformed and poorly educated. In part this reflects the universal recognition that there is a greater power governing us all that we have as yet to fully comprehend.

            When 9-11 struck, many religious leaders insensitive to the pain of the victims’ relatives and friends called it divine retribution for America’s tolerance of homosexual ways; likewise when Katrina broke the levees of New Orleans.

            At the other end of the world, when the Asian tsunami hit northern Sumatra at Christmas 2004, the iconic image that was seared into everyone’s memory was of the lone mosque standing forlornly and unscathed amidst the sea of destruction around it.

            Those with even an inkling of science knew that the tsunami was caused by a shift in the earth’s tectonic plates deep in the floor of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Sumatra. That knowledge has profound consequences; it led to the creation of ocean sensors that could detect those earth and giant wave movements well ahead to warn those that may be affected. Along the coast of Japan and western North and South America there are already early warning systems and clearly marked evacuation routes. Indonesia did not have them then.

            The science-challenged Indonesian peasants saw things differently. To them, the lone standing mosque was Allah sending them a message. The peace treaty that ended the generations-long civil war in Aceh was signed soon after. Their metaphysical interpretation of events too had a fruitful consequence.

            Before we dismiss or belittle the Indonesians’ belief, there is still the question of why the tectonic shift had to occur there and at that particular time and not at some remote uninhabited part of the Pacific. That defies science, at least as we know it. Modern science offers only probabilities.

            So when Malaysia suffered through two eerily similar “black swan” tragedies in the two passenger-jet crashes, it was not a surprise that many looked for some explanations beyond science. To be sure, a plane disappearing or crashing is not a black swan event, but MH370 disappeared without leaving any trace, incredulous in this day of round-the-clock ubiquitous satellite surveillance. That tragedy still baffles the experts. As for the ill-fated MH17, while we all knew what happened (it was shot down), still the question remains why a MAS plane was the unfortunate victim.

            When an obscure village alim says that the calamities were caused by MAS serving alcohol, he can rightly be scoffed at and be ridiculed. By that theory Emirate Airlines would have been a top casualty. However, when thoughtful commentators like Kadir Jasin, the former editor-in-chief of The New Straits Times, and Zaid Ibrahim, a former cabinet minister and successful corporate lawyer, alluded to bala or divine retribution, then we are compelled to pause and reflect. This is especially so when their views resonated with the general public.

            In reality, many had taken figurative pot shots at MAS in the past. Stated differently, long before these two black swans, the airline had had many dark crows. MAS would long ago have been grounded, and many times too, had it not been for the government coming in with expensive rescue bailouts.

            Profitable units of the airline, like catering and maintenance, had been siphoned off to UMNO cronies, and then MAS was forced to buy back those services at inflated prices, converting what were once revenue-producing units into revenue-draining ones. On another front, instead of pampering its customers, MAS was pampering its employees, from ramp handlers to top executives. They all happily hogged the company’s trough at the customers’ expense, and with taxpayers ultimately paying the bill.

            While other airlines were getting substantial discounts for their new planes and passing those savings back to their companies, MAS was paying full retail price, with the discounts going into the pockets of crony middle men “consultants” in cahoots with top executives. Then there was that “brilliant” idea of selling its headquarters in a prime Kuala Lumpur location and then renting space back from its new owner. It’s akin to selling your house and then paying rent to the new owner, adding another expense. This was what Pan Am Airlines did in 1970. We all know what happened to that company.

            Then there was that wonderful scheme of financial engineering scheme dubbed WAU (Widespread Asset Unbundling) where MAS sold its planes and then leased them back. Again it was like selling its headquarters. Not owning your own planes is a smart and effective strategy for a start-up airline; it conserves capital that could be diverted to expanding its market. It is however a dumb move for an established company to do so as that would only add another layer of costs. The only ones wowed by that WAU scheme were the new owners of the planes and the investment bankers who arranged the deal. That deal was also a cute play on words as “wau” is Malay for kite, the airline’s logo.

            If MAS shares serve as a metaphor for Malaysia, then what happens to MAS the company mirrors what happens to Malaysia the country. Previously reliable services like power and water that were provided by competent public entities are now privatized, sold at heavily discounted prices to favored political cronies. These ersatz capitalists, pseudo entrepreneurs, and rent seekers came out like bandits, but the pipes often run dry, and when they do flow, the water is not fit to drink. Likewise with electrical supplies; they are erratic and with ever escalating prices.

            The government cannot forever protect MAS from the reality of an increasingly competitive world. The price for bailouts keeps escalating and is no longer sustainable. For MAS, the skid was greased by the entry of Air Asia at one end, which cannibalized MAS on the domestic and regional front, and Singapore and other Asian airlines like Cathay Pacific that chipped away at MAS’s long-haul destinations.

            The first black swan, MH370 disappearance, exposed the incompetence of Malaysian leaders on the world stage. Malaysians of course have been fully aware of this for a long time. These leaders could not handle even simple queries from journalists and the public. The astute political cartoonist Zunar captured well the bumbling Najib. His biting cartoon depicting a “Too Weak” Najib “Two Weeks” after MH370 was carried by The Washington Post.

            Like MAS, Malaysians too have been exposed to the reality of a highly competitive globalized world. They now realize that the “education” they had received at local institutions has been nothing more than indoctrination. Their low English proficiency and abysmal communicating skills and critical thinking faculties do not serve them well in the new marketplace.

            I hope Malaysian leaders would heed the wisdom of Zaid Ibrahim and Kadir Jassin, that is, treat the two black swan events as the Indonesians treated their black swan of the Asian tsunami. Keep the Malaysian house pure and in good order, free of what displeases Allah, not to please Him but to please Malaysians.

            If Najib and others in UMNO fail to heed this message, then Malaysians are duty bound to remove them and give others the privilege to lead the nation

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