Malaysia: Assets and Liabilities (Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #43)

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #43

by Bakri Musa

Part II: Transforming Malaysia

The instinct to censor is a powerful one. It is also an acknowledgment of the unpredictable power of words. Goenawan Mohamad, Indonesian editor and journalist.

Chapter Six: Malaysia: Assets and Liabilities

To prepare for globalization Malaysia must first take stock of herself. She must assess her positive as well as negative attributes; and enhance her assets and lessen her liabilities. She must also be mindful that with ingenuity, liabilities can be turned into assets while assets not improved upon or left to deteriorate can become liabilities.

Malaysia is vulnerable on a number of fronts, with many simmering problems yet to be addressed or even acknowledged. Malaysian leaders must critically reexamine their policies and revisit their assumptions. They must not hesitate to jettison ineffective policies, modify inadequate ones, and expand on effective strategies.

In this chapter I will review some of Malaysia’s attributes, both positive and negative.

The Colonial Legacy

The conventional wisdom is that colonialism is a negative experience for the colonized. For Malaysia, I would argue the opposite. The British left behind a politically neutral and professional civil service and military, together with an independent judiciary. Malaysia also inherited from the British a system of parliamentary democracy, a very precious heritage.

Those who belittle these legacies would do well to look at neighboring Thailand. It has never been colonized and its civil institutions are not well developed. Until very recently, its military had been involved in one coup after another, and its judiciary is not worthy of emulation. The Indonesians were colonized too, but they were too busy fighting against instead of learning from the Dutch. Had the Indonesians learned a thing or two about business from that great mercantile nation, Indonesia would not be in such an economic mess today.

For the wider Malay world, colonialism was both a unifier and divider. Imperialism permanently divided what was once a natural Malay entity comprising the entire Southeast Asian archipelago. The Spanish claimed the Philippines; the Dutch, Indonesia; and the British, Malaysia. With the departure of the colonialists these divisions continued and indeed deepened, with each country pursuing its own separate path. Despite attempts at regional cooperation (ASEAN being the latest), these three countries have drifted apart instead of coming closer.

The converse, that is, the unifying influence of colonial rule on Malays cannot be underestimated. Prior to British rule, the Malay peninsular was nothing more than a series of tiny little fiefdoms, each with its own little sultan and system of nobility similar to that of medieval Europe. There was little sense of nationhood or feeling of kinship among Malays. Kelantan Malays treated their kinsmen in Johore as foreigners.

The British, by bringing together these tiny Malay states into one political entity, forced Malays to think as a nation. The major impetus for Malay unity came shortly after World War II, with the British overweening attempt to make Malaysia into a permanent dominion.

Malays rightly sensed this grave threat to their collective political survival; this forced them to unite to meet a common adversary: the British. That one development precipitated a sea change in the culture of Malays. Up until then Malays were perceived as being politically docile, uninterested in the affairs of state, and content to be under British “protection.” Inspired by and through the hard work of a visionary nationalist, Datuk Onn, the various Malay organizations were united under one banner, UMNO, with the sole purpose of taking on (politically) the British.

It was a tall order but through Onn’s brilliant strategic leadership, Malays were successful in derailing the British plan. UMNO went on, under different leadership, to champion the cause for independence.

It is a worthy contrast that Malaysians learned and benefited so much more from the British than the Indonesians ever did from the Dutch. One possible reason is that Malaysia gained her independence a decade later after Indonesia, and thus benefited from this longer tutelage. For another, Malaysia’s early leaders had spent some time in Britain during their youth and had seen or sampled the finer aspects of British life. Datuk Onn, for example, had attended a school in England and distinguished himself in the colonial civil service. He may have been anti-British politically, but culturally he was an unabashed anglophile; likewise his successor Tunku Abdul Rahman who graduated from Cambridge. Having been associated with the intellectual and social elite of Britain, these leaders were not so disparaging of the colonials and their values.

I digress here to illustrate another point. Many contemporary Malaysian leaders are viscerally against globalization. This attitude is bred because few of them have personally been immersed in or benefited from globalization. Mahathir and most of his ministers have never spent much time abroad to study or work. Nor have they run corporations or businesses that have substantial international connections or cliental. Their insular backgrounds shape their attitudes. Similarly, early Indonesian leaders like Sukarno had a jaundiced view of colonialism because they were exposed only to the brutality of Dutch rule and never to the finer achievements of Dutch society. He had never spent time in Holland.

In contrast to Malaysia, Mexico, another Third World country, welcomes globalization because its new president, Vicente Fox, was formerly the CEO of Coco Cola Mexico. He knows first hand of the importance and value of free trade and open markets. His experience with that American multinational company and American businessmen exposed him to another aspect of America specifically and globalization generally, one rarely seen or experienced by the “Go Home Gringo!” crowd in Mexico City.

Chile is also embracing globalization because many of its ministers and economic advisors have been trained at the finest American universities and worked with leading multinational corporations. They have experienced personally the tangible benefits of globalization and thus are not easily swayed by emotions. Had Mahathir been a consultant at an American hospital prior to becoming leader or had as advisors individuals like Megat Zaharuddin, the former CEO of Shell Malaysia, Mahathir would have a different take on globalization.

Going back to UMNO, had it been led in the beginning not by Datuk Onn or Tunku but by some rabble-rouser Malays who had never left their kampongs a la Perkasa’s Ibrahim Ali, Malaysia’s fate today would be no different from Indonesia. The Sanskrit word kupamanduka (frog in a well) describes well this insularity, so is the Malay equivalent, katak di bawah tempurong (frog underneath a coconut shell). Their world is very limited, hence their ready certitude.

Thus the greatest cultural transformation of Malays was started not by a committee, a commission of wise men, or UMNO Supreme Council, but by the seminal contribution of individuals like Datuk Onn and Tunku. It illustrates my point in the last part of Chapter 2 on the primacy of individuals in initiating significant changes in society. Qualitatively UMNO’s formation was equivalent to Japan’s Meiji Restoration, a positive cultural response to an external threat.

For those who belittle Datuk Onn’s significant contributions, let me suggest a different scenario that would have been devastating for Malays and Malaysia. Imagine had the British flattered Datuk Onn by offering him the grand title of Earl of Malaysia, and with it a seat in the House of Lords. They did that earlier to the Malay sultans, offering them private audiences at Buckingham Palace and exalted knighthoods. That strategy worked, just as it did with the Indian Maharajas. The Malay sultans were ready to sign the historic Malayan Union agreement to make the country a permanent British dominion. Fortunately Datuk Onn, his anglophile leanings notwithstanding, did not fall for the trap. But not for lack of trying on the part of the British! He was after all Sir Onn!

Next: Another Colonial Legacy: The Professional Military

  1. #1 by boh-liao on Tuesday, 7 December 2010 - 9:11 am

    Congratulations 2 national paralympic archer Mohd Salam Sidik who is ranked world number 1 in his speciality, archery
    Ranking based on real skill n talent, acknowledged by one n all, not d phony NEP type ranking with discounts
    He must b feeling proud n over d moon! Well done n keep up d superb performance

  2. #2 by ktteokt on Tuesday, 7 December 2010 - 9:21 am

    NAJIS – The single biggest LIABILITY to Malaysia!

  3. #3 by k1980 on Tuesday, 7 December 2010 - 9:53 am

    The Kedah branch of the Malaysian Historical Society to have Penang returned to Kedah.

    After this, Singapore will be returned to Malaysia, Sarawak returned to Brunei, Sabah returned to Mindanao, Kuwait returned to Iraq, Malaysia returned to the Orang Asli, Australia returned the aborigines, New Zealand returned to the Maoris, USA returned to the native American Indians…and the planet Earth returned to its Maker

  4. #4 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 7 December 2010 - 10:44 am

    Yes, there is some truth in what Bakri says about “the primacy of individuals (leaders) initiating significant changes in society or cultural transformation of Malays”.

    However the greatest impact has not been made by leaders who had “sampled the finer aspects of British life”.

    It will be recollected that Dato Onn’s initiatives at the Malayan Union and later the Independence of Malaya Party and Parti Negara were rejected by the Malays; Tunku’s muti-racial approach was also rejected.

    Dr M even wrote a letter blaming the Tunku’s multiracial approach as giving in too much to the Chinese thus causing the May 13 due to Malay unhappiness – and was rewarded by being brought back to UMNO’s fold and later ascended to position of Prime Minister.

    It was leaders such as Mahathir who would meet Bakri’s desciption of having “insular background” and “never spent much time abroad to study or work nor have run corporations or businesses that have substantial international connections or cliental” that have made the greatest impact and changed the nation’s course with long tenure of administration (22 years), introducing aggressive affirmative NEP and Islamisation policies. (On the opposite side of the political divide the other influential leader – PR’s defacto leader Anwar – would generally qualify as so described as well).

    In contrast, the present “Anglophile” leader had a drubbing by Perkasa’s Ibrahim of his NEM (in tune with dictates of Globalization) during the Bumiputra Economic Congress and has since watered down his NEM to be in line with Mahathir’s NEP!

    So in terms of anglophile Malay leaders who have pedigree of royal or elite background and “sampled the finer aspects of British life” versus those who have had humble background/origins, “insular background” and local education, it is evident that the latter “local” category wins hands down in the contest of which category makes the more significant changes in society or cultural transformation of Malays. What does that tell us???

    To be sure, globalisation affects Dr Mahathir too but the take is different.

    “Had Mahathir been a consultant at an American hospital prior to becoming leader” (per Bakri), he would have promoted “Look West” than “Look East” instead of “Buy British Last”.

    In World War II he sold Goreng Pisang & snacks : today in retirement Japanese-style bakery called The Loaf – instead of British scones.

  5. #5 by tak tahan on Tuesday, 7 December 2010 - 2:29 pm

    It’s the race n religion divisive policies that these umno lanuns have been camouflaging to stay in power and plunder bolehland’s resouces as much and as long as they could.Whether bolehland jadi tak bolehland doesn’t matter to them at all.They have been succeeding to fool malaysians for many decades largely due to ignorance by malays and no less by minority.Vote for change is the only way no matter how we can talk untill we drop dead.

  6. #6 by TheWrathOfGrapes on Wednesday, 8 December 2010 - 9:53 am

    /// The conventional wisdom is that colonialism is a negative experience for the colonized. For Malaysia, I would argue the opposite. ///

    BM, you have deliberately or otherwise, not mention the case of Singapore. Singapore and Malaysia are almost Siamese twins in this respect – both achieved independence around the same time. Both achieved independence peacefully, with all the colonial infrastructures and institutions intact.

    However, what happened in Malaysia and Singapore after independence were vastly different.

    On independence, LKY declared that the statute of Sir Stamford Raffles will remain where it is. No road names (many are English names) will be changed. What this symbolized was that Singapore will take what is good and working and work it for the benefit of Singapore. Unlike many newly independent countries whose first act is to demolish anything to do with the colonial masters, change all the road names to local/indigenous names and blame all the ills of the country on the colonial master.

    You can see the results in many African countries. And Malaysia is now following that path.

  7. #7 by TheWrathOfGrapes on Wednesday, 8 December 2010 - 9:58 am

    Jeffrey :
    “Had Mahathir been a consultant at an American hospital prior to becoming leader” (per Bakri), he would have promoted “Look West” than “Look East” instead of “Buy British Last”.

    This happened not because TDM loves the Japanese. The tantrum of “Buy British Last” and the churlish retaliation of “Look East” policy was implemented immediately after the British government accused Malaysia of corruption. Remember those gold coins?

  8. #8 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 8 December 2010 - 11:36 am

    Though evincing a vindictive streak I do not have a sense that Mahathir’s “Buy British Last” and the churlish retaliation of “Look East” policy was implemented immediately after the British government accused Malaysia of corruption.

    The immediate spark of “Buy British Last” was unhappiness with UK’s university tuition fees hike. Maybe BNM’s 1990 Pound Sterling speculation was in part tyo whack the British for accusing us.

    On “Look East”, my sense is that he had that in mind right at the very moment he became PM (before any British insult).

    Like many people under British, he must have when young then thought Kwei Lo Colonial Master superior until he saw Japanese chased them out and awakened him about fallacy of European superiority!

    He lived through the War. Though Japanese occupation brutalized many I don’t think Mahathir suffered personal trauma. He was busy selling goring pisang in local market and even attended Japanese School.

    At the time he became PM he had to latch on to some workable development model for the country that he steered.

    He ain’t no Adam Smith or Karl Marx in terms of originality of thought. He couldn’t look West because West was having more capital, technology, markets & everything for “catch up” meaningful.

    He looked East and saw Korea & Japan becoming Asian dragons and their Miracles and urged Malaysian emulate both. It s not only their work ethics (fuelled by national pride) but government interventionist economic model instead of Western bias towards laissez-faire. Our MITI was fashioned after Japan’s MITI driven by Shigeru Sahashi! Just like Japanese MITI picked selected leaders to propel industry of industry, he too emulated with the “Daim’s boys” though many of these have proven losers!

    Mahathir also mpressed by Korean Park Chung Hee linking Asian authoritarianism with fast tracked industralisation, esp Park’s obsession with cross country highways & freeways (Seoul- Pusan) to spur by spill over effects the economy that inspired our North –South Highway; and Park’s POSCO’s steel mill to inaugurate Korea’s steel age – that inspired our Perwaja. Though both helmed by chopstick wielders Eric Chia failed because Malaysian Incorporated decision makers right down to rank & file workers have not – unlike Japanese & Korea counterpart – the compulsive obsession to quality & details based on excellence and financial discipline fuelled by fierce National Pride to drive us to success! Instead we have hang-ups like competition of races within own country leading to NEP and its debilitating effects until now.

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