Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Thrust Forward Our Best Arguments, Not Our Kerises!

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 (www.bakrimusa.com)

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, Malaysia-Today.net, 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 Malaysia-Today.net 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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Sycophantic Editors Ruin Trust
September 7th, 2008

Malaysiakini.com September 4, 2008

M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

The result of the recent Permatang Pauh by-election was a surprise only to those who depended on the mainstream media and the government’s massive propaganda machinery for their source of news and information.

A measure of how far detached from reality those who sit in the editorial suites of our mainstream papers can be gauged by the pre-election editorial of The New Straits Times where its Editor-in-Chief Syed Nadzri boldly predicted that Anwar would be defeated. Obviously Syed Nadzri was beginning to believe his own spin.

In coming to such a wildly off-the-mark conclusion, Syed Nadzri is either a lousy observer of the public mood or he is more concerned with sucking up to his political superiors. In either case, he does not deserve to be the custodian of such a valuable and essential institution of modern society.

To me Syed Nadzri is both. That he is a poor judge of the public mood can be seen by the ever declining circulation and influence of his paper. Syed Nadzri is only the latest in a long series of those who, through their lack of professional integrity and journalistic skills, have destroyed this once-valued brand name. As one naughty wag put it, that paper should now be more correctly called, The New S**t Times.

It pains me to note (what is obvious to all) that since the paper was acquired by UMNO, nearly all its senior editors and journalists are Malays. I refuse to believe that a Just Allah had not bequeathed upon the Malay race our fair share of talent. I also refuse to believe that past luminaries like the now-ailing Samad Ismail was an accidental fluke and not the trademark of our culture. He should be an inspiration for the present generation of journalists, a measure of what we are capable of producing.

Instead we have the likes of Syed Nadzri, individuals more adept at sucking up to their superiors. Syed Nadzri has obviously learned little from the fate and experiences of his many predecessors who were similarly afflicted. While such a trait may have facilitated their ascent to the top, once there it is no guarantee of career longevity.

Syed Nadzri should have learned, or somebody should have taught him, that while political winds and personalities may change, your professional duties and ideals do not. Yours is to ensure that the public be well informed, the prerequisite of a healthy, functioning democracy.

The slow but sure decline of The New Straits Times was interrupted only briefly when Abdullah Ahmad, a former Ambassador to the UN and a Mahathir appointee, took the helm. He survived but only briefly under Abdullah Badawi. At least Abdullah Ahmad left in a blaze of glory, having had the courage to speak his mind publicly.

As I look at its roster of past Editors-in-Chief, I am struck at how quickly they, with few exceptions, have descended into oblivion once deprived of their perch at the editor’s desk. Kadir Jasin has his widely-read blog where he gives the occasional pungent comments now that he is freed from the tethers of officialdom. Again remarkable because of the rarity, Abdullah Ahmad is one of the few editors whose writings have been respectable enough to appear in reputable foreign publications.

The New Generation of Pseudo Journalists

My observations apply equally to those who helm Bernama, RTM and TV Tiga, as well as the other mainstream papers like The Star, Berita Harian, and Utusan Melayu. What we have today is a generation of pseudo or pretend editors and journalists. Ever wonder why the public ignores them? They have betrayed the public’s trust in them.

It is instructive that Ahiruddin Atan, Noraini Samad and Kadir Jasin now reach more readers through their blogs than when they were with the mainstream papers! It would not be long before they would effectively overcome the blemish in their resume that was the time they spent with the mainstream media.

I would be irresponsible if I were to stop here, pointing out only the problems and not offering solutions.

One thing is clear. The present “leaders” in journalism are very much part of the problem. Having brought up and flourish under the present system, we cannot expect them to change, or be part of the solution. Getting rid of them would be a necessary first step to solving the problem.

Replace them with competent and established editors from abroad if need be, and tie their compensation to the success of their papers. There are many measures of this (circulation figures, advertising revenues) but an important one would be how often articles and commentaries in their paper are being picked up by other publications.

Additionally, I would have as a regular event an annual week-long continuing education series for our reporters, journalists and commentators where they would hear from the leading practitioners in their respective fields. I would invite established journalists from abroad in various fields (political reporting, economic analyses, and investigative journalism) to lecture and share their experiences.

I would include as part of the program a basic writing course as well as courses on effective interviewing. Even more basic, I would gather all the editors, and guided by a competent teacher of English grammar and stylist, craft a uniform editorial format on such things how to handle long names and honorifics, as well such simple things as standardized spelling. Is it Kota Baru or Kota Bharu?

While we are discussing the basics, I would have someone competent in mathematics to teach our reporters and journalists on the meaning and significance of numbers. Then we would not have such silly statements as, “The price of food increased 5 percent last month.” Is that 5 percent over the previous month or over the same month of the previous year. Percentage is a ratio; you must therefore state the reference point.

Then as a concrete commitment to ensuring the future quality of the profession, I would groom at least half a dozen young journalists every year for entry into the leading journalism schools in America. With the promise of future infusions of fresh, bright and well-trained talents, rest assured the quality of local journalism and media would be enhanced considerably.

Only through such careful preparations and nurturing would our future journalists be able to differentiate between news and propaganda, between ministerial speeches and important policy announcements. Our society would then be well served. Journalists owe their readers and the public honest professional reporting, not propaganda to serve the needs of their political masters. This is what separates a free democratic society from an authoritarian state.

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Towards A Competitive Malaysia #69
September 3rd, 2008
Chapter 9: Institutions Matter

Malaysia has many favorable geographic attributes. They will remain so only if we treat them as such and nurture them accordingly. While we may not be able to alter the other less-than-favorable geographic realities (except in a limited fashion as with draining a swamp or channeling the course of a river), we can modify and adapt our cultural attitude towards them.

Those towering monsoon swells that strike such terror in the hearts of the villagers in Trengganu may well be heaven on earth to surfers and whitewater sailors. There may not be much tourist dollars to be had from those youthful backpacking surfers, but Malaysia is trying hard to attract their affluent parents by organizing sailing regattas. The Mahkota regatta on the west coast is fast attracting sailors from all over the world. The government is attempting to have the sailors’ equivalent of the Formula I at Pulau Duyong, Trengganu, the Monsoon Cup. Its inaugural regatta scheduled for late 2006 is already attracting big-name sailors.

Sailing has not caught on with the youth or elite in Malaysia. With growing affluence the sports will soon become mainstream, as seen in Singapore and Hong Kong.

The waters off Pulau Perhentian may still harbor its hantu, but if we could teach those folks to be dive masters, boat operators, tour guides, and sailing instructors, those hantu would leave them alone and the hitherto poor villagers could now earn a good living from the sea. After all there is such a concept as a friendly hantu in Malay mythology.

As indicated earlier, Cancun was once a poor fishing village; today it is a major tourist destination, with former fishermen now working in hotels and resorts or as sports fishermen guides. The geographic facts of Cancun have not changed, only the attitude and values the Mexicans have of the place. Southeastern United States was once the backwaters of the nation. With air conditioning and the building of levees, marinas and waterways, those waterfront properties are now premium. Similarly, the desert Southwest, once the home of gila monsters and rattlesnakes, are today desirable winter vacation spots. The geography has not changed; what has is the attitude towards those geographic factors.

I will consider Malaysia’s four favorable geographical factors: location, tropical climate, maritime nature, and the rain forests, and how best to leverage those advantages.

Location, Location, Location

Malaysia is located roughly midway between Europe and Australia, and between Europe and the Far East. As real estate professionals readily attest, location is everything.

With air transportation now becoming important, developing an airport is a wise investment. KLIA is a superb facility; it could compete with Singapore’s Changi and Thailand’s new airport. KLIA already has a great head start in having a lower cost structure. Combined with superb services, it would give the region’s airports stiff competition. Low cost is important but not enough in itself; besides, Thailand’s proposed new airport would also have that.

Improving services cannot be achieved merely by wishing it. Those running KLIA must be well trained; their executives must be sent to good management schools for formal training, not those mini (culup) courses. Additionally, we should send them to work at other leading airports to see how they are being run. This is necessarily a slow process. When we send our executives abroad to the best schools, there is no guarantee that when they return, they would not revert to their old bad habits or acquire new equally bad ones from their entrenched superiors.

One sure and fast way to transfer “soft” skills like management expertise would be to invite established companies to run KLIA. Arrange the management contract such that they would benefit directly from the increased businesses and suffer the consequences if they do not improve the revenue.

Malaysia made a great leap forward in privatizing KLIA, but its operators were a local entity with no experience or competence. Malaysia should instead open the tender process and invite bids from experienced operators. If that means foreigners so what, at least the locals could benefit from the diffusion of management expertise and other skills. Presently KLIA is a private enterprise only in name, in culture it is still like any government agency.

One way to increase volume and revenue would be to offer part equity ownership to a major carrier, passenger or freight. Fed Ex already owns and operates a major facility in the Philippines. There is nothing stopping Malaysia from approaching other entities like UPS. This is the strategy the Port of Johore is successfully pursuing; it lets foreign shippers like Evergreen have an ownership stake and with it, its businesses that hitherto been going to Singapore.

Running airports and ports are new ventures; they are not usually seen as commercial enterprises. Many Third World nations consider their airlines less as a commercial entity and more as a national prestige. Their mission is less at providing a service or bringing in revenue and more showing of the flag. This is one reason why Malaysia Airlines is bleeding money.

I could not care less who owns KLIA and Malaysia Airlines as long as they provide superior and profitable services. There is no reflected glory if natives were to run or own them but do a lousy job. KLIA right now is plagued with pilferage problems, lax security, and low efficiency. Those are the surest ways to drive away customers.

United Emirate Airlines is a new player and yet it is now one of the best. Its Arab owners have broken the traditional Third World mentality and secured the best talent to run their enterprise. As there are few Arabs with the skills and experience, the airline has not hesitated in recruiting foreigners. Likewise with Dubai World Port; it is now managing some of the biggest ports in the world. Those enlightened Arabs are not at all bothered that many of the executives and senior personnel are foreigners. Malaysians should also have the same attitude; emphasizing competence over nationality.

With increasing affluence and sailing fast becoming mainstream, seaside towns like Malacca, Port Dickson and Johore Baru could have marinas catering to affluent boat owners from the region. Visit a marina in Los Angeles and we have boat owners from thousands of miles away. Langkawi is proving that marinas can be a thriving industry. Small coastal communities in California that once hosted local fishermen are now finding lucrative new businesses serving the leisure boat market. For that to happen in Malaysia, our seas and beaches must remain clean and attractive. Those hitherto fishermen would have a better chance of earning a decent living manning those marinas than with fishing in their old inefficient ways. Of course they have to be properly trained. That should be the focus, not on maintaining some mystical dream of the traditional lifestyle.

Next: Tropical Climate

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Anwar’s Path To Putrajaya
August 31st, 2008

The Path To Putrajaya

M. Bakri Musa


The path to Putrajaya for Anwar Ibrahim began on a very sure footing last Tuesday, August 26, 2008, at Permatang Pauh. His landslide electoral victory was a rousing endorsement of his person and of his leadership.

Anwar inspires Malaysians with his promise of new dawn; a new direction for nation that has been drifting in the slumber land of its leader, Abdullah Badawi. Anwar challenges us to think beyond our narrow interest towards a more inclusive anak Malaysia (children of Malaysia). He dares us to aspire for a Malaysia where justice is cherished and corruption banished. He promises us a government that is transparent and efficient, a government that emancipates instead of suppresses its citizens. Most of all, Anwar pledges to the supremacy of citizens, Ketuanan Rakyat.

Malaysians, yearning for a change, responded enthusiastically in Permatang Pauh. It was an evening for Anwar, and deservedly so.

This by-election was also a decisive defeat for and a public humiliation of Abdullah Badawi. Permatang Pauh voters saw through the hoax that is his leadership. These are no ordinary Malaysians who have passed this harsh judgment; they are neighbors of Abdullah. He cannot pull wool over their eyes; they easily cut through his borak kosong (empty words).

This election marks not only the beginning of the political ascent of Anwar but also the beginning of the end for Abdullah.

This was the other clear message from this election. It was badly needed as the earlier one sent by Malaysians last March obviously did not register on Abdullah. Abdullah still deludes himself, and his advisers continue to let him do so, that the March electoral debacle and the Permatang Pauh humiliation were aberrations and not a trend.

This was not a case of Abdullah having eyes that would not see or ears that would not hear, as Mahathir suggested, rather of Abdullah refusing the message.

Dirty Tricks and Bribes Did Not Do It

In this by-election Abdullah and his minions tried all the dirty tricks in their books, and then some. Despite the sleaze, including the obscene and very public desecration of our Holy Quran by their operatives, Abdullah Badawi and Najib Razak failed to drag voters down to their gutter level of politics.

Earlier, UMNO Youth Deputy Leader Khairy Jamaluddin brashly predicted that he would bury Anwar’s political career. I wonder what his spin is now that his party’s candidate received fewer votes than the number of registered UMNO members.

Khairy helped dig a grave all right, to bury his father-in-law’s leadership. Khairy has in-law’s flat political learning curve, an affliction they share with the rest of UMNO’s leaders, sparing only a few. The few like Tengku Razaleigh get drowned in the sea of mediocrity.

The leadership of UMNO is today paralyzed. In the past when the party faced serious challenges as in 1969 following the race riots and again in 1987 when the party was deregistered following a divisive leadership challenge, it was fortunate to have decisive and intelligent leaders. Today they have a listless leader who could not even decide what tie to wear.

UMNO under Abdullah is incapable of renewing itself; the implosion of UMNO has begun. The cacophony we are now hearing is nothing more than the howling of jackals fighting over UMNO’s carcass. That is bad for Abdullah, UMNO and Barisan Nasional, but great for Anwar, PKR and Pakatan Rakyat. Most of all it is great for Malaysia and Malaysians.

That is splendid enough reason for celebration.

Abdullah-Najib Duo On Trial

Contrary to the pundits’ pontifications, Anwar’s path to Putrajaya will be smooth and fast. Anwar’s challenge is not in getting there but what he should do once he gets there.

The machinery of state he will be inheriting is precariously out of gas, badly in need of a major overhaul, and had been recklessly driven by an incompetent operator. Bringing it back to roadworthiness will be a major undertaking, let alone making it race-ready.

Anwar’s goal must be to get that statecraft ready for the great race. That should be his focus. He should not settle for anything less. The temptation when the going gets tough would be to compare himself with Abdullah. That would be setting the bar too low.

Anwar’s top if not only priority must be to restore our institutions now wrecked by the twin blights of corruption and incompetence. That should occupy him for at least a decade.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, the trial over Saiful’s allegation of being sodomized will not in the least stop or even slow Anwar. Instead, like the earlier trial a decade ago, it will expose the corruption and incompetence of the police force, the prosecutor’s office, and ultimately the Abdullah Administration.

We are already feeling the bracing effect of this fresh wind that is Anwar. The judge in the preliminary hearing demonstrated her judicial wisdom by granting Anwar a modest bail in what otherwise is a no-bail charge. She also denied the prosecutor’s request to impound his passport. A few years ago such expressions of independence from the bench would have been unheard of.

A comedian once quipped that the difference between rape and seduction is salesmanship. I would extend that humorous though insensitive line to consensual versus non-consensual sodomy. When that trial is over, it will dawn upon Malaysians that it is us who had been sodomized by Abdullah and his ilk while we were being seduced by his seemingly pious sermons.

When that moment of realization arrives, Abdullah and his minions will bear the full fury of the wrath of Malaysians. And they would deserve it.

That however should be the least of the concerns confronting Anwar once he is in Putrajaya.

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