Sunday, September 28, 2008

“916″ Not A Failure

“916″ Not A Failure

September 28th, 2008
Forts posted on SEEING IT MY WAY,, September 24, 2008

M. Bakri Musa

When (it appears less of an “if” now) Anwar Ibrahim takes over the government, he will face the monumental twin problems of undoing the damage wrecked upon our institutions as well as containing the inevitable implosion of UMNO.

Failure in either would effectively doom Anwar, Pakatan, and Malaysia. The good news is that both challenges could be handled simultaneously through the same strategy, and with the subsequent success benefiting all.

The blight on our institutions and governmental machinery, as well as the urgent need to rectify it, is well appreciated. Less recognized is the need to manage UMNO’s certain breakup.

For those who venture that UMNO’s fate is the least of Anwar’s (or our) concern, consider this. The tumultuous and unpredictable demise of the Soviet System may have ended the Cold War, but the world paid a severe price, one that could have been mitigated had the breakup been more orderly.

The world is still paying the price. There is the recurring nightmare that the Soviet’s old nuclear warheads might fall into unscrupulous hands. Those still unconvinced of the price being paid, just ask the Georgians and Ukrainians.

UMNO dominated Malaysia for over half a century; its implosion too will have unpredictable fallouts. If not skillfully managed, the consequences on Malaysia would be on a scale similar to that inflicted on Eastern Europe by the collapse of the Soviets.

Unity of Purpose

Even if Anwar were to secure substantially more than the 31 promised crossovers in Parliament, his government would still be a coalition of political parties with diverse and often opposing ideals. Besides, the parties have had only a very short experience of working together, not to mention their equally contrasting and conflicting personalities!

Anwar could learn much from his predecessors. In the 1950s, the distrust among the races was even greater, yet Tunku Abdul Rahman was able to forge an “Alliance” (the name of his coalition) of UMNO with the Chinese (MCA) and Indian (MIC) parties.

He was able to overcome their considerable differences by focusing on the few agreed-upon objectives, among them the sharing of political power and seeking the end of colonial rule. Each party had to make considerable concessions to secure their common goals.

It helped that those early leaders genuinely liked each other, having shared their formative years together as students. They knew each other’s families and attended each other’s social parties. Consequently they harbored considerable personal goodwill towards each other that eased their inevitable policy differences.

Anwar successfully used his awesome political skills to make his coalition partners concentrate on their commonalities and less on their differences. Before the elections he made them focus on a singular objective: denying Barisan its supra-majority. He succeeded, and then some. In governing, Anwar should similarly emphasize the twin objectives stated in my opening statement, and only on those two.

Anwar is also gifted with many of the charms and warmth of the Tunku. It is no mean feat to have Hadi Awang and Lim Kit Siang share the same table! Anwar should continue using that special talent not only on his Pakatan coalition leaders but also across the aisle. He should consider his earlier tenure as an UMNO leader an asset, and leverage that to foster greater cooperation with its leaders.

He must adopt the personal philosophy of President Reagan: party politics stops at 5 PM, and once you cross the border. The Republican Reagan used to invite the Democrat Speaker O’Neill over to the White House in the evening to share a glass of Irish whiskey. Reagan would also include many Democrats in his overseas trips.

Differences in policies and philosophies will always be there, but these ongoing social relationships would help lubricate those differences and prevent them from reducing us to shrill denunciations of each other.

If UMNO Youth leaders could play regular golf tournaments with their PAP counterparts, then surely Hadi Awang could listen to sermons by Abdullah Badawi, and vice versa.

Ramadan is a splendid opportunity for such social interactions by inviting non-Muslim fellow leaders in and out of Pakatan to a community iftar. Others include the wonderful Malaysian tradition of “Open House” during festive seasons. These would provide excellent occasions for our leaders to socialize with each other, and more importantly, to be seen doing so. Such public gestures of goodwill would percolate down.

Government of National Reconciliation

Anwar could also take a leaf from another illustrious predecessor, Tun Razak. Following the May 1969 riot, Tun Razak formed a government of national reconciliation by inviting all parties to participate in his much-expanded Barisan Nasional.

Anwar need not necessarily expand his coalition but he could tap outstanding members from UMNO and other Barisan parties for his cabinet. American presidents often have in their cabinet individuals from the other party, for example, Republican William Cohen serving under Democrat Bill Clinton.

Undoubtedly Anwar will encounter resistance from his side, especially those who consider ministerial appointments as the spoils of war, to be distributed only among the victors. To help overcome this, Anwar must select only the most capable from the other side. This would also demonstrate his commitment to meritocracy.

There will be resistance too from across the aisle, as evidenced by their refusal of Penang Chief Minister Lim’s offer. Used to the culture of corruption, they would consider such good faith gestures as attempts at corrupting their members. To overcome that, appeal to their sense of patriotism, that this would be a national service. Also reassure them that they would still maintain their party affiliation.

One leading candidate to offer a cabinet position would be Zaid Ibrahim. His commitment to reforming the judiciary matches that of Anwar and Pakatan. Another would be Tengku Razaleigh, unless of course he wins UMNO’s Presidency this December. His intimate knowledge of the economy and wide business experience would reassure the nation. There are a few other promising candidates deep in the belly of UMNO Youth who have not yet succumbed to the corruption culture of their party.

Anwar should cast his talent net wide and deep. There are many highly capable Malaysians in academia, the professions, and private sector. A note of caution; they may have the knowledge and executive skills but they often lack the necessary political polish. However, a brief tutelage by the master should equip them well.

Inevitably there will be those over-exuberant members of Pakatan who would like to punch the final nail onto Barisan’s (UMNO specifically) coffin. Resist the temptation. Pakatan’s folks should value the importance of a viable and vibrant opposition. Relishing the collapse of Barisan or UMNO would not be good for anyone.

Unlike many, I do not consider the uneventful passing of “916” a failure. On the contrary, Anwar is wise in being cautious and not stubbornly adhere to some artificial, self-imposed deadline.

After over 50 years of domineering rule, UMNO’s imprint is strong everywhere, in the civil service, academies, military, and even the private sector. Overcoming these considerable institutional inertias would be formidable. Go easy; let those operatives get used first to the idea of change.

Anwar’s assurance of no “witch hunting” is appropriate and timely. Perhaps he could have a “Truth and Amnesty Commission” comparable to Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Inquiry to ferret out corruption and abuse of power, granting amnesty to those who voluntarily come forward. Apart from saving the nation’s precious resources in trying to investigate and prosecute, we might also learn something about the underlying mindset and culture. The educational value of such an exercise would definitely be much more than any high-profile punitive prosecution.

We do not need a tumultuous or worse, an unexpected switch. That would be disorientating, and can be destabilizing. Instead, let the existing establishment be the first to get fed up with the present power struggle and ensuing uncertainty. Then they would be begging for someone, any one, to take charge!

There is no need (as well as unwise) to involve the palace; it may come back to haunt you. Instead wait for the palace to beg Pakatan to take over! If nothing else, there is more class that way. Similarly, dissolving Parliament and calling for fresh elections would not go well with the electorate. Citizens would not welcome yet another season of politicking and campaigning; they want the mess cleaned up! I am certain the palace is aware of voters’ sentiment.

I would prefer that UMNO and Barisan collapse from within rather than through Pakatan’s instigation. Pressure, yes, but not instigation. The difference between the two? Salesmanship, and thus public perception.

Be patient, the infighting will intensify; UMNO and Barisan will implode. When that happens, be ready to pick up the pieces. Malaysians would be grateful to Pakatan for doing so. However, if Pakatan were to initiate the downfall and in the process trigger political instability, it would not endear itself to citizens. Public perception is supreme.

This is a time to tread carefully. UMNO’s leadership convention will come soon enough this December. Relax and enjoy the expected fireworks. Like an overripe durian, UMNO will fall. Be careful that you are not underneath it when that happens. Stay to the side; it will be yours for the picking when it falls under its own weight.

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I Found Al Ghazali In Dang Wangi
September 26th, 2008
Guest Commentary (Kickdefella):

Hi folks!

I am sorry for all the unreleased messages and comments on my blog ( As you know, I have been away on “holiday” in the lockup at the Balai Polis Kota Bharu and Dang Wangi. I had tried to check in at Pudu Prison as well but was turned away, presumably because I was not qualified enough!

As reporters rushed to shoot questions to me, I asked them, “Who is the prime minister?” One reporter for a television station smiled and replied, “Pak Lah lagi,” (still) I retorted, “Kalau macam tu saya nak masuk lokap baliklah…” (If that is the case then I would like to return to my lockup!). And of course I then turned away from them.

I thank you all for your prayers and kind support. The police had treated me well, and most of the time they went beyond their call of duty. I made many friends too!

I spent three Ramadan nights under custody in police lock-up. Yesterday, the night of my release, as I lay down on my bed as a free man, tears began flowing down my cheek for the first time since the death of my mum.

The moment I step into the lock-up in Kota Bharu District Police Station, at that moment all confusion subsided. I sat facing the wall all the time because I cannot bear looking at the other site where the ‘attach’ bathroom is.

I recited Hasbun-Allah-Wa-Ni’ma-Wakil and Ya-Malik-ul-Mulk Dzul-Jalal-Wal-Ikram all the time, taking breaks to perform my solat and solat sunnat. It was the most peaceful time I ever experienced. Those nights, living on the bare minimum, lying down on the unfinished cement, without any shirt to wrap me, yet I felt very warm. I felt complete.

It was an un-worldly moment. I felt no fear, no anger, and no remembrance of those I left behind. It was just me and … Him.

When I had fallen asleep, I could feel my mother and father, both of whom had left the cruel world, was there, smiling at me. It was the strangest experience, yet such a wonderful one.

On the last day in the Dang Wangi Police lock-up, I shared my feelings with the person in-charge of the lock-up. He looked at me and said that I felt that way because I was innocent. He was very apologetic and wished that I understood the nature of his work.

During my last Subuh prayer in the lock-up, I prayed to God that, if in His eye I was innocent, then please forgave those whom due to the call of duty had to do what they had to. I bore no grudges against them. When we met, we were strangers but we parted as friends.

For four days and three nights, I have been robbed of my rights as a citizen of this country, but nobody can rob from me the experience I have had during those times.

Abdullah’s regime could only take the freedom from my body but it could never take the heaven from my heart, for God alone is sufficient for us. He is the disposer of affairs. He is the eternal owner of sovereignty, the Lord of majesty and bounty.

I knew on the day I was arrested that the police would on the following Tuesday arrest another Malaysian whom the Government claimed had insulted the SONG, and today I knew they were looking for another Malaysian blogger who was still flying the flag up-side down. I also know that those two persons are just victims of Abdullah’s struggle for political survivor. I pray for them to be strong. This is just the beginning for us, but rest assured that it is the end for Abdullah!

I will arrange a press conference later today. Till then, rest assured, I have kick Dollah again as soon as I was released. You can ask the press.

Salaam and love,


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Towards A Competitive Malaysia #73
September 24th, 2008
PART III Where We Are Now

Chapter 11: Learning From Our Successes

Wealth converts a strange land into homeland, and poverty turns a native place into a strange land.

—Ali ibn Abu Talib in Nahj al-Balagha (Peak of Eloquence)

The future of any nation—or of anyone for that matter—cannot be assured. Great opportunities may be squandered, destining the nation to mediocrity, and adversities may be successfully surmounted, transforming the nation. There are many ready examples of each.

Iran and Iraq are blessed with precious petroleum, yet their citizens live in abject poverty and great misery. The Netherlands and Switzerland are not similarly blessed, yet their citizens enjoy high standards of living and are at peace. Switzerland is a particularly pertinent example. Despite its ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversities, it is peaceful and harmonious. Its wise leaders successfully kept the nation out of the horrors of two world wars. Switzerland could easily have been another Balkan.

There are many challenges facing Malaysia, from the polarization of Malays specifically and the fragmentation of Malaysian society generally, to the rise of religious fundamentalism. Then there is the deterioration in integrity and quality of institutions through corruption and incompetence. Declining schools and universities contribute to the erosion of the nation’s productivity and competitiveness through the quality of their products, the nation’s future workers. The alarming degradation of the environment threatens the nation’s economic and physical health. Externally, there are looming challenges from giant neighbors China, India, and Indonesia. On a larger scale, Malaysia cannot insulate itself from the realities of globalization.

Turning these formidable challenges into opportunities require effective, enlightened, and imaginative leadership.

In this section I will discuss three of the four factors of my diamond of development. The fourth—leadership—will be elaborated in the next section when assessing the performance Prime Minister Abdullah.

I begin by reviewing some of the challenges Malaysia had successfully tackled in the past, and the lessons that could be learned. Malaysia has done many things right, and well. Others have noted this of Malaysia. We have to constantly remind ourselves of this fact not so much for self-adulation rather that we would be inspired to achieve even greater successes. At the very least we should try to replicate, amplify, and enhance those earlier achievements.

I follow this with chapters covering the three main challenges facing the nation: fragmentation of society, being the people component of my diamond, (Chapter 11); deteriorating institutions, a component of culture (Chapter 12); and environmental, regional and global challenges, a factor of geography (Chapter 13). I will also critique past policies (Chapter 14) and current strategies (Chapter 15).

The purpose of the exercise is to learn how best to maximize the opportunities and minimize the challenges. Of even greater importance is to ensure that we do not squander those opportunities, or through neglect, turn them into liabilities. While we cannot change or reliably predict the future, we can make some reasonable assumptions and plan for that eventuality. Doing so would help create a future more to our liking. If that future happens to be different, we can always adjust our thinking. Just having a plan can often be beneficial, even though it may prove to be totally wrong or inappropriate. As the wisdom goes, failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

My hospital has a mass casualty plan to handle emergencies like earthquakes (a real possibility in California). During the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, our disaster plan did not work quite as planned. For example, right after the earthquake all the phone lines were jammed and the hospital’s personnel could not contact by phone those off duty, as per the protocol. However, as the hospital had many drills in the past, everyone knew what to do on hearing the news. When I phoned the hospital and could not get through, I immediately drove over, as did the other doctors and nurses even though this was not in the plan. Having plans and drills helped prevent a crisis from degenerating into mass panic, even though events may not prove to be as predicted.

Malaysia must have contingency plans for the anticipated problems and challenges. Even though events may later prove to be vastly different and the plans inadequate or even inappropriate, at least the nation would be prepared. In making those plans, we should pause and learn from past experiences. Economists do this with their economic modeling. When the outcome varies with that predicted, they would re-examine the assumptions and make the necessary modifications to improve the model’s predictive accuracy.

The challenges Malaysia successfully faced in the past are many, among them: gaining independence peacefully; defeat of the communist insurgency; and achieving economic growth with equity. The world rightly compliments Malaysia on these achievements. I will briefly review each of these achievements.

Next: Peaceful Merdeka

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Thrust Forward Our Best Arguments, Not Our Kerises!
September 21st, 2008
Thrust Forward Our Best Arguments, Not Our Kerises

M. Bakri Musa

Suflan Shamsuddin Reset: Rethinking The Malaysian Political Paradigm

ZI Publications

Petaling Jaya, Selangor, 2008

216 pages Index


From UMNO Youth leader Hishamuddin Hussein wildly jabbing his keris into the air, to the malicious distribution of Pakatan Rakyat’s purported “Babi Cabinet” list in the recent Parmatang Pauh by-election, there is no question as to the coarsening of political discourse in Malaysia. That alone would not be enough for Malaysians to be worried.

We are also becoming dangerously polarized racially. Sadly, our leaders are blissfully ignoring this dangerous development; they continue egging on their supporters. Prime Minister Abdullah, as head of UMNO, has yet to admonish Hishammudin for his ugly race-taunting antics. In not so doing, Abdullah is implicitly encouraging others to do likewise. Witness his own son-in-law Khairy Jamaludin’s “monkey see, monkey do” clowning, and the latest brouhaha over that hitherto unknown character in Penang, Ahmad Ismail.

Race politics is threatening to do to Malaysia what ethno-nationalism is doing elsewhere. There are just too many examples of once peaceful societies now wrecked by sectarian violence. I have a tough time telling apart a Singhalese from a Tamil, yet that does not stop them from slaughtering each other in nearby Sri Lanka.

This deepening polarization in our country has many thinking Malaysians worried. One of them is Suflan Shamsuddin. In his book, Reset: Rethinking The Malaysian Political Paradigm, Suflan puts forth his analysis of our current dilemma, and advances his own unique solutions.

Suflan blames our present system of race-based political parties. If he has his way, he would “reset” the current political structure so that only racially “inclusive” parties that consciously broaden their appeal to all communities, could partake in elections. “Non-inclusive” parties that purposely cater to a narrow racial base could only do so if they were to come together under an “inclusive” coalition.

Suflan’s rationale is clear. Our political parties would then have to broaden their appeal and not, as at present, cater to their most chauvinistic followers. Under Suflan’s plan, race-inclusive parties like UMNO, MCA and MIC that come together under an “inclusive coalition” (Barisan Nasional) would be allowed to contest elections, but not “race inclusive” parties like PAS. Unless of course if it were to do so under an inclusive coalition, which it did in the last election under the Pakatan Rakyat banner.

To Suflan, only the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the only two “inclusive” parties, would be allowed to contest under their own banner.

This is the weakness of Suflan’s argument. While PKR is genuinely multiracial in its ideals and membership, DAP is not. While DAP’s constitution may explicitly state that it is non-racial, nonetheless in reality Malays are as rare in that party as a meat dish in a vegetarian restaurant. Gerakan still has its inclusive ideals, and in the beginning it had truly multiracial membership and leadership, but today that party is exclusively Chinese, and fighting hard to displace MCA.

You cannot rely only on a party’s professed ideals on whether it is inclusive or not. After all, North Korea calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. They fool only themselves.

In truth, today’s realities demand that political parties broaden their appeal unless they are satisfied with their perpetual fringe opposition status. Even the conservative folks in PAS recognize this, however clumsily. In the last election it fielded its token non-Muslim candidate, and a woman at that! The remarkable success of the opposition parties in the last election with their coalescing under the Pakatan Rakyat banner is another proof of this.

Surely the test on whether a party is racially inclusive or exclusive lies not with its constitution or the avowed declarations of its leaders, rather on how it is being perceived by voters. Barring particular parties ahead of time is not the answer. Let voters decide. They have a good track record, having buried such entities as Parti Negara and the Socialist Front.

PKR’s spectacular success indicates that Malaysians are now warming up to the idea of non race-based parties without there being any need for legislation.

I do not the blame the system entirely for our present predicament. Instead, I blame our leaders in particular Prime Minister Abdullah. It is his willful neglect that permitted our racial sore to reopen, spewing out its putrid poison.

In the past, leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Razak managed to rein in, and in many instances disassociate themselves from the excesses of their chauvinistic followers. The greatest threat to a plural society is a weak and ineffective leadership. Unfortunately that is what we have in Abdullah.

I would do considerable injustice to Sufral’s thoughtful book if I were to end my review here. After all, his proposal constitutes less than a quarter of the book. The rest deals with his analysis of the current malaise and schism in our political system.

Re-Examining The Social Contract

A good portion of this book is Sufral’s nuanced discussion of the path the nation has taken to be where we are today. His arguments are rational, and put forth in a cool and deliberate manner. There is no grandstanding, no diatribes, and no name calling or demonizing any party or personality.

Whether discussing Ketuanan Melayu, the New Economic Policy, the social contract our earlier leaders struck, or the special place of Islam and Malay rulers in our constitution, Sufril presents the various viewpoints. He is not advocating any particular position, rather for us to understand and appreciate the different perspectives.

Sufril is a corporate attorney with a multinational firm, and is based in London. The forte of such lawyers is to bring parties together and close the deal. That requires trust and respect for the other side, frank discussions of potential pitfalls so as to avoid them, and focusing on the mutual benefits. This book reflects Sufril’s professional style.

For a contrast in style and personality, consider trial lawyers, in particular criminal trial lawyers a la Kirpal Singh. They are used to courtroom histrionics in order to sway judges and juries. Their forte is to demolish the credibility of the other side. Malaysian politics would do well with more of Sufrals and fewer of Kirpals.

Therein lies the problem. Unlike the past when politics would attract the talented among Malaysians, today they are being enticed by the more lucrative private sector or choose to pit their talent against the global best in multinational corporations.

In Reset, Sufral has started an important dialogue, one all Malaysians – leaders as well as followers – must be fully engaged in. We would also do well to follow his style in being cool, rationale, and hearing as well as respecting all sides. In short, instead of thrusting our kerises forward, we should thrust our best arguments.

Suflan Shamsuddin’s (Author’s) Response:

Dear Bakri:

Many thanks for reviewing my book. I just have one or two comments.

In it you say, “To Suflan, only the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the only two race inclusive parties, would be allowed to contest under their own banner. This is the weakness of his argument. While PKR is genuinely multiracial in its ideals and membership, DAP is not. While DAP’s constitution may explicitly state that it is non-racial, in reality Malays are as rare in that party as a meat dish in a vegetarian restaurant. Gerakan still has its inclusive ideals, at least in the beginning; today it is exclusively Chinese and fighting to displace MCA in the Barisan coalition. PKR is genuinely multiracial in its ideals and membership, DAP is not. While DAP’s constitution may explicitly state that it is non-racial, in reality Malays are as rare in that party as a meat dish in a vegetarian restaurant. Gerakan still has its inclusive ideals, at least in the beginning; today it is exclusively Chinese and fighting to displace MCA in the Barisan coalition.”

I would like to point out that under my proposal (p 159), DAP will NOT be able to compete, unless it has the necessary number of Bumiputra members to demonstrate that it is truly inclusive. It is precisely because I agree with your observations about it “being a meat dish in a vegetarian restaurant,” that I have formulated a requirement for proof of multi communal representation to be a key criterion for a party to be permitted to contest in an election. So it is wrong for you to suggest that I would let DAP contest, WITHOUT having sufficient Malays membership. This is after all the crux of the analysis for why there is a disequilibrium for which prerogatives and patronage become justified (in the eyes of BN to deal with what they perceive as clear and present danger), and at the heart of the proposal in Chapter 11. I make it clear that inclusiveness must be demonstrated both in form AND in substance. I make the same point with respect to Gerakan on page 158.

There are also other differences of opinions that you suggest we have, including the blame on Pak Lah for the predicament that we are in, and the importance of intra-racial conflicts.

Although I would agree that Pak Lah has been ineffective in containment, I make the case that no other leader is likely to have done any better, unless they are willing to reset the political framework. On the latter point, I do not dispute the dangers of intra-racial conflict. But given the cleavages as they necessarily exist, I would place priority on ensuring that our political framework manages the inter-racial framework expeditiously, but in a way that drives centrist policy development, as I believe my inclusive model would do.

Again, many thanks for your frank and honest review. I accept that we have differences in opinions, but I think that a misreading of the book’s proposal might unduly cause confusion which could be avoided.

I look forward in meeting you one day. DSAI is expected to launch the book before the end of this month. It would be great if you were in Malaysia for the launch!

Best Regards

Suflan Shamsuddin

M. Bakri Musa replies:

Dear Suflan:

Your point of clarification is correct.

My argument however is this. We cannot set ahead of time conditions or criteria that would certify a party is racially inclusive and thus could partake in elections. Rather, the test should be only this: if the party, its leadership and policies transcend race, meaning they appeal to and are acceptable to all races, then that party is racially inclusive. This could only be demonstrated at general election times. Those parties that appeal to a narrow racial or other base (for example religion) would be “exclusive” and will never go beyond their minority status and thus doomed to perpetual opposition status. There is no need for special laws.

I could easily form a seemingly “racially inclusive party” by going through the kampongs, rubber estates, city slums, and longhouses and offering those poor folks a few ringgit to be “life time” members of my party, and presto, by membership my party would be certified racially inclusive and could thus partake in elections!

During the last Permatang Pauh by-election, the UMNO candidate received fewer votes then the number of UMNO members!

Stated differently, voters, not bureaucrats from the Election Commission or elsewhere, will decide at elections whether a party is racially inclusive or exclusive. That is the only valid criterion. Any other way and it would open up the process to abuse or corruption.

Cheers dan Selamat Berpuasa,


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Malaysia: This Is Only The Beginning
September 19th, 2008
Malaysia: This Is Only The Beginning
By Farish A Noor

Recently I found myself in an open discussion with some of my students in the university I am based at in Indonesia. At the tender age of 18, this one first-year student demonstrated both the intellectual acumen and political commitment I have come to expect from those twice his age, yet he was just one of the many students whom I am proud to say have come under my care and tutelage. After ten years of teaching experience, I have come to the simple conclusion that my Indonesian students are by far the smartest, gutsiest, honest and dedicated compared to the students I have taught in Malaysia, Singapore, Germany, France and Holland. Why?

That an 18 year old can begin his university life equipped with enough political knowledge and commitment is testimony to the success of a primary and secondary educational system that got it right. This boy is the product of the post-Suharto educational system of Indonesia, and living proof that the reformasi (reform) movement of the 1990s in Indonesia has succeeded.

Yet the success of reformasi in Indonesia depended upon the quiet dedication of a legion of activist-academics who toiled day and night to dismantle the hegemonic structures of power and knowledge that were developed and consolidated during the three decades of Suharto’s rule. This meant that they had to confront not only the hegemony of the old regime, but also replace much of the human and ideological resources that had been put in place between 1970 and 1998. Ten years later, the results are only beginning to show, and it has proven to be a worthwhile endeavor after all.

Malaysia today is at a similar crossroads where Indonesia was a decade ago. With the febrile grip of the Badawi government growing weaker by the day, there is much speculation that Malaysia’s former Deputy Prime Minister and now de facto leader of the opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, is poised to take over the reins of power. It is widely speculated that Anwar now has more than forty members of Parliament who are prepared to leave the ruling UMNO party and join his People’s Alliance to take over from the unpopular and discredited government of Badawi. Anwar has written to Badawi and called for a dialogue between the two to discuss a peaceful transition of power: something that has never happened in the course of Malaysia’s 51-year history.

Should such a transition happen, however, it would only mark the beginning of what must be a long and difficult process of reform and reconstruction. Like Indonesia, Malaysia has lived under half a century of hegemonic rule by one party – UMNO – and the ruling coalition it leads. Five decades of UMNO rule translates into five decades of pro-UMNO propaganda that has been normalized as news in the press, official history in school textbooks, official discourse in the workings of the state. This also means that the entire apparatus of the state – from the police and the armed forces to the bureaucracy, educational institutions, economic sector, etc. – have all been stamped with the lingering imprint of UMNO and UMNO’s brand of racialized ethno-nationalist politics.

Taking over the government of Malaysia is just the first step to reforming the country. What many Malaysians do not perhaps realize is how difficult and long the process of reconstruction will take. For instance, the task of re-writing the country’s official history, that has so long borne the bias and slant of UMNO’s ideologues, will be a herculean task in itself. Malaysia’s communally fragmented society will demand representation on all levels in the new curriculum of the national educational system. Muslims, for instance, may insist on a re-writing of Malaysian history primarily from their Islamist perspective. Other ethnic and cultural minorities may likewise call for an equally sectarian interpretation of history as well. Even if such a comprehensive history could be written, would a new government have the will to see to it that it is taught in schools? Decades of UMNO hegemony has also ensured that a pro-UMNO bias remains in many institutions of the state and to some extent the official ideology of UMNO has been internalized by many members of the bureaucracy. One can anticipate many rounds of furious polemics, protests and counter-protests, and not to mention countless efforts to sabotage the reform process in Malaysia before it even gets off the ground.

Compared to the long road ahead and the obstacles that are bound to be put up in the face of reform, winning power and taking over the government will seem a relatively easy task. Much more difficult will be having to dismantle the structures of power and knowledge that have been fossilized for so long and overturning the dominant culture of racialized politics that has divided Malaysian society thus far.

What is required therefore is a spirit of universal citizenship and a commitment to a non-racialized and non-communitarian Malaysia: a task that the present opposition alliance itself is not perhaps ready to take on considering its own communalist make-up, divided as it is between communitarian Islamists and left-leaning democrats. The first and enduring task therefore has to be the inculcation of the value of universal citizenship and civic commitment to Malaysia. Until today Malaysians see themselves as members of the Malay, Chinese or Indian races first, or place their religious identity before citizenship. Yet the creation of a democratic and equal Malaysia relies on that intangible quality known as Malaysian citizenship, a quality that is hard to quantify or define but crucial nonetheless for nation-building. Are there enough of such Malaysian-minded Malaysians who can build a new non-racialized non-sectarian Malaysia? Time alone will tell, but for now the prospect of an unprecedented change of government is the first of many long and difficult steps that has to be taken in the slow birth of a reformed Malaysia.

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Petition to Free RPK and Other ISA Detainees
September 18th, 2008
Petition to free RPK, Teresa & all ISA detainees

I’ve signed the petition. M. Bakri Musa Please join me!.

If you haven’t please click the image below, read the petition and sign it, please, and then get all your family and friends to do the same.

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Towards A Competitive Malaysia #71
September 17th, 2008
Chapter 9: Institutions Matter

Our Valuable Rain Forests

The warm tropical climate sustains the lush rainforest. From the air, it appears as an unending green velvet carpet that covers much of the country, interrupted only by the ribbon of rivers or the clearings of human settlements.

The rainforest is rich in every sense; rich in valuable tropical hardwood, rich in its diversity of life forms, and rich in its services to the natural environment. The rainforest was once referred to as jungle, with the connotation of the source of pestilence, something impenetrable, and an obstacle to progress. It had to be conquered and destroyed; it was presumed to have no intrinsic value.

As a result, a large swath of the rainforest has been stripped, clear cut, and degraded through pollution. One can see this from the air as littered pockmarks on the otherwise pristine landscape. Only after the forest is gone do we feel the adverse consequences. That lush jungle covering betrays the thin layer of topsoil that supports the luxuriant growth. When that cover is gone, the soil is subjected to torrential rain and endless erosion. This in turn denudes the land, turning it into a barren moonscape. The resulting silting clogs rivers and reservoirs, giving rise to endless cycles of floods and droughts. The burning of the forest creates a poisonous haze that now regularly afflicts the region.

The absence of the thick foliage means the removal of nature’s most effective air and climatic recycling system. The leaves absorb the carbon dioxide turning it to life-sustaining oxygen. The leaves also breathe water vapor into the air, which in turn creates the clouds and the rainfall. Absent that and we have profound microclimatic changes.

The disastrous ecological consequences for disturbing the centuries-old jungle environment are many. When the thick jungle canopy is denuded and the soil depleted, once useful forests of hardwood would give way to hardy and persistent weeds of the secondary jungle. The land is then essentially lost as an asset. That is the readily observable loss. The more valuable but less appreciated loss is the depletion of the biodiversity. The rainforest is literally a treasure house of varied life forms. It contains plants and other life forms that may be nature’s secret ingredients for curing cancer, infections, and hosts of other diseases.

This more than any other reason is why we should keep our rainforests intact. We just do not have the knowledge yet to identify all the plant and animal life, let alone discover their potential values. We should listen to the cautious voices of the environmental NGOs like Friends of the Earth. The fact that these ecologically conscious NGOs are Western-based is no reason to ignore their warnings. They are not trying to keep Malaysia backwards in preserving those valuable jungles. There is just no need to repeat the mistakes of the West.

Chapter II: Learning From Our Successes

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A Comment About Comments
September 15th, 2008
Dear Readers:

Lately my filter on this website has been ’super-efficient.’ This was apparently precipitated by my article, “Anwar’s Path To Putrajaya,” where many of you responded by using words and phrases that normally would be filtered and thus treated as “spam.” As I am sometimes less than diligent in going over the filtered remarks, your comments often get delayed for a few days. Now that I am aware of the problem, I will be more diligent in scanning the filtered lists to check for any legitimate comment. My apologies if your comments were not posted in a timely fashion.

M. Bakri Musa

M. Bakri Musa

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Beware! Cavemen Working!
September 12th, 2008
[Note: I brought forward my usual Sunday contribution in light of what happened in Malaysia during the last 24 hours. MBM]

Beware! Cavemen Working!

M. Bakri Musa (

The arrest under the ISA of Raja Petra Kamaruddin, editor of the hugely popular Internet commentary portal Malaysia-Today, together with journalist Tan Hoon Cheng and MP Teresa Kok, as well as the “show cause” letter to three newspapers expose the caveman thinking and behavior of those we have entrusted to lead our nation.

To think that this repressive action is being taken during our holy month of Ramadan! So this is the essence of Abdullah Badawi’s much-hyped Islam Hadhari!

I join millions of other law-abiding Malaysians in condemning this latest Neanderthal action of the Abdullah Administration in its callous disregard for basic human rights and dignity. Unlike many however, I am not shocked by Abdullah’s latest act. On the contrary, it is so predictable. Raja Petra himself commented on his imminent arrest a few days earlier in his column, as well as in an interview with the BBC.

After all, the only tool a caveman has is his club, and the only skill he has learned is to swing it around wildly. When that does not work, the only choice in the caveman’s thinking is to get a bigger club and to swing it even more recklessly, even at the risk of destroying everything around him, including himself.

The government had earlier blocked Raja Petra’s website, but when that proved ineffective (as mirror sites popped up immediately everywhere) as well as embarrassing (as it showed the government’s impotence and stupidity), the caveman in Putrajaya dropped his club and grabbed an even bigger one and began swinging it clumsily around.

Rest assured that no matter how big the club or how hard the caveman swings it, this “new” strategy will not work either. We no longer live in caves and Malaysians – our leaders excepted – have long evolved from our Pithecanthropus phase.

Contrary to the official portrayal, Raja Petra is not and never was a threat to the safety and stability of the nation. That major threat comes instead from those cavemen in Putrajaya. Through his highly influential website, Raja Petra has done a yeoman’s job bringing the sunshine into that dark cave, using his website as a massive reflector. Unfortunately its dim-witted dwellers, long used to working under equally dim light, found this sudden brightness blinding; hence they went berserk.

Raja Petra has successfully ran rings around the collar of the petty and inept Malaysian officialdom. I applaud him for his success; I applaud him even more as he relishes in doing so!

Earlier the government had directed its agencies to block access to Malaysia-Today. When that proved futile they reversed their decision. Now they arrested him under the ISA. What will they do next when they discover that too will fail? Some folks are slow learners, others like Abdullah and his minions never learn at all. Another feature of the caveman!

The Phenomenon That Is RPK

Raja Petra Kamaruddin is more than just an individual or a blogger; he is a phenomenon. His creation,, now has a robust life of its own. Through it Raja Petra has successfully ignited the passion for freedom among Malaysians. This fire is now burning bright not only at but also everywhere its sparks have landed.

Even if Abdullah could douse down Malaysia-Today, a major supposition given his demonstrated ineptness, he could never suppress this yearning for freedom among Malaysians.

Nor for that matter could anyone else. Raja Petra had made fools of the many who tried. There was the pompous lawyer Raja Petra reduced to wild exasperations, frothing in his mouth at being unable to serve legal papers upon Raja Petra. Deputy Prime Minister Najib and his wife Rosmah wisely chose not to engage Raja Petra in any legal tussle even though he had made some serious allegations linking her to the brutal murder of a Mongolian model.

Far from being cowed by the string of lawsuits, threatened and real, civil and criminal, Raja Petra is emboldened. The only way they could “put him in” was not through the normal judicial process of using the courts but by resorting to the brutish powers of the ISA.

Malaysian officials justify their use of this abominable statute by pointing out that even countries like America, Singapore and South Korea have some version of this law. This is a misreading. Those oppressive statutes in America do not apply to Americans, only to foreigners. More importantly, the statutes are being regularly and successfully challenged in the courts.

As for Singapore and South Korea, yes those countries are cavalier in their respect for the basic human rights of their citizens, but at least they have an efficient clean government and citizens have a high standard of living. Not a bad trade off, though not one I would willingly partake if I were to have a choice.

Malaysians on the other hand have to contend with a repressive, corrupt and inefficient government as well as a rapidly eroding standard of living. The worse possible combination!

Social Entrepreneur Par Excellence

Raja Petra is a social entrepreneur par excellence. An entrepreneur is one who sees the needs of the consumers and goes about fulfilling that need, using the available tools and resources. In the process he makes a tidy monetary profit, but also gains other non-pecuniary benefits like satisfaction in serving his customers. A social entrepreneur profits not in monetary terms but in the changes he brings about in his community. And Raja Petra has brought about enormous and irreversible changes to Malaysians and the nation.

To be sure there were many others who preceded Raja Petra. He was successful because he used the medium of the season, the Internet. Had he been contented to writing columns in newspapers, delivering sermons, or making political speeches, he would, like many of his predecessors have limited if any success.

It is this unique combination of the Internet and Raja Petra together with the peculiar situation existing in Malaysia today that has produced this phenomenal success. The peculiar combination I refer to is first, the atrocious standards and utter lack of credibility of the mainstream media that eased the acceptance of Malaysia-Today by Malaysians. The second is the foresight of Dr. Mahathir with his Multimedia Super Corridor initiative and its solemn promise of non-censorship that made Raja Petra and Malaysia-Today blossom.

Today we, Malaysians as well as non-Malaysians are the beneficiaries. Raja Petra’s being held under the ISA would not in any way diminish that luster. But then what do cavemen know of about luster or gold and platinum! To them those are nothing but rocks and pebbles!

Putting Raja Petra away will not put an end to Malaysia-Today and what it stands for. It is we the people that have made what Malaysia-Today what it is. The government would have to put all freedom-loving Malaysians in jail if it ever hopes to put a stop to this phenomenon that is Malaysia-Today.

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Towards A Competitive Malaysia #70
September 10th, 2008

Chapter 9: Institutions Matter

Tropical Climate

Malaysia’s hot humid climate is a bummer. Nothing much can get done as the afternoon heat saps one’s energy. The colonialists attributed the listlessness of the natives to the oppressive heat. Only mad dogs and Englishmen would dare venture out during the day; others knew better.

Air-conditioning makes life in the tropics bearable. Working in a climate-controlled environment, whether it is the office, laboratory, or cab of a tractor certainly boosts one’s productivity.

The tropical climate however does offer many compensating advantages. Unlike in temperate zones where homes and buildings must have both heating and cooling systems, thus doubling the costs of constructing, operating, and maintenance, in Malaysia you would have to deal only with cooling and ventilation. Malaysian architects and designers have yet to come to terms with this reality. They still design in the traditional fashion of the tropics: high ceilings, porous walls, and many large windows. That was fine in the pre air-conditioning era. Today those high ceilings create unnecessary air volume that has to be cooled.

Designers in the temperate zones make full use of the positions of the sun, placing huge windows in south-facing walls to get maximal exposure of the southern sun in winter. Malaysian architects rarely consider such factors. We see huge non-insulated glass windows facing the west, and getting blasted by the hot afternoon’s setting sun.

I once asked an architect whether there are building codes in Malaysia specifying that glass windows especially those facing the west should be insulated or coated to reflect the sun. There are none. One sure and quick sign of power fail during the day (when you cannot tell from the light being off) is to see the windows on office towers being opened. With no air conditioning, those buildings with their expansive glass panes quickly become ovens under the blazing Malaysian sun.

The tropical climate means that construction can go year round, thus reducing carrying costs. The tourist season too is year round; there is no down season. In July, Malaysia is the warm weather destination for the Australians; in December for the Europeans and Japanese. Malaysian resorts do not have low or off-season rates; they charge the same high tariffs year round. In the Caribbean, the off-season summer rates can be as low as 50 percent off the high winter charges.

Malaysian roads are not subjected to the extremes of temperatures, and as such have lower maintenance costs. Damage to Malaysian roads occurs through erosions and flooding, and those could be mitigated with proper drainage. Malaysia does not have to expend vast sums for snow removal.

Had Malaysia paid close attention to its forests, there would be minimal soil erosions that would silt the rivers and reservoirs, thus reducing their capacity. That in turn would reduce the flooding, as well as ensure an adequate supply of clean water.

The hot stifling climate is a ready excuse for many things. Malaysia is planning a half billion rinngit sports complex in London in the belief that its athletes could benefit from cool weather training. A similar excuse was made to explain the intellectual lethargy of our students. One does have to go to expensive London to escape the heat. Built the sports complex and a university at Cameron Highlands or Frazer Hill, and you would get the same cooling effect and save the nation a bundle of money. Of course such a sensible solution would preclude senior government officials from undertaking their frequent foreign junkets.

Maritime Nation

Malaysia has endless miles of coastline and beaches bathed with warm, clear waters. Even where the shoreline is not sandy but muddy with groves of mangroves, that too is a blessing. Those mangroves are effective barriers against coastal erosion; they also serve as excellent habitats for fish and other marine life.

The mangrove trunk makes excellent scaffolding material for construction. Prudently harvested and it would continue to replenish itself and provide endless supply of material. Wantonly cut, and it would be rapidly depleted and expose our shores to destructive erosions and destroy nature’s many life forms. The greatest value for Malaysia’s beaches is as desirable tourists’ destinations for residents of cold countries. They would come, but only if those beaches are clean, the waters unpolluted, and there are services to cater for their holiday needs.

Dubai is in the barren desert, but tourism is now its major revenue source, soon to eclipse petroleum. In Malaysia, tourism is now second (if only a distant second) to manufacturing as a foreign exchange earner. Tourism’s potential is great but has yet to be fully tapped.

With people getting more affluent and international travels more affordable, tourism will be become an even greater industry. Malaysia already has the necessary ingredients and resources, thanks to its geography, but it would have to do a lot more to equip its people with the necessary skills to service this important sector. To develop the leisure boat market and make sailing and boating as mainstream recreational activities, Malaysians must be trained as sailing instructors, boat repairers, and other skills and services.

Then we have to make sure that we do not spoil our beaches and seas by treating them as dumps. It sickens me to see our rivers polluted, emptying its rubbish-laden waters into the seas. It is criminal that factories and municipalities could empty their raw sewage directly into rivers and seas. Our beaches are beautiful only from afar; up close it is strewn with filth from uncollected trash. We have beautiful and valuable assets in our beaches, but we do not treasure and treat them as such.

Again, Malaysia can learn a lot from other countries on how to maintain its coastlines and rivers. California has a state commission that regulates any building or activity within 100 feet of its coastlines.5 Its rulings override municipal, state or even federal jurisdictions. It has done much to maintain the pristine nature of California’s coastline. That is an even more valuable resource than the oil underneath its shoreline.

Similarly, there are statutes governing development along rivers and streams. I have two creeks through my property yet I cannot put a culvert or build a bridge across without permission from the authorities. Wells and septic leach fields must not be within a certain distance from those streams.

Only with such care could our valuable rivers, coastlines and environment be preserved for the enjoyment of all. That is also the only way to treat nature, and if we do that it would also give us valuable economic dividends and bounty to our people.

Next: Our Valuable Rain Forests

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