Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #99

By M. Bakri Musa

Chapter 12: A Prescription For Malaysia

An Open Letter to the Prime Minister

[Note: There was a typo in the previous installment. The date of the letter should be May 13, 2002.]

May 13, 2002

(Cont’d) Embracing Globalization

I totally disagree with your characterization of globalization as a vehicle for Western hegemony or that it would destroy our way of life. We are more likely to maintain and indeed enhance our culture and heritage if we are successful economically. If we were to be marginalized economically, our culture and language too would suffer the same fate. If we do not climb on the globalization train now we will be left far behind. Individually, we are more likely to be tolerant and altruistic when we are prosperous and affluent than if we are poor and struggling. This applies to government as well.

Yes, globalization carries its own risks and problems. There are many shoals and reefs in the ocean of globalization. The best way to handle that is to train our citizens to be better sailors and navigators, not to remain in port. To extend the maritime metaphor, yes there will be swells and storms out there; our crew must therefore be adept at trimming the sails and battening the hatches.

You justify harsh and restrictive rules like the ISA on the fear that our present stability is fragile, and that with minor disturbances we would regress. I cannot blame you for having this attitude. One needs only look at previously prosperous and stable societies now reduced to their backward status through social unrest. In the 1950s Lebanon was the crown jewel of the Middle East. Its American University in Beirut was the breeding ground for fertile Arab intellectuals and scientists. A generation later, the very survival of that nation is in doubt. Yugoslavia only recently hosted the glittering Winter Olympic Games at its breathtaking mountain city of Sarajevo; today that nation no longer exists.

I am cognizant of those realities; nonetheless we cannot launch into the next trajectory of development unless we change our precepts. If we constantly fear of falling back, we will never be able to scale the top of the mountain. As the late Malay scholar and philosopher Hamka succinctly put it: Takut gagal adalah gagal sejati (The fear of failure is the real failure).

The next phase of progress requires a whole set of different skills and assumptions. What once worked will no longer be so, indeed they well become obstacles. Special privileges may have once been successful in improving the lot of Bumiputras, but clearly that program has now “maxed out.” Unchanged it will be more hindrance than help.

At the 2001 Annual UMNO General Assembly you once again saw fit to publicly castigate and upbraid Malays for not measuring up. You sermonized, cajoled, begged, and even cried to make us change our ways, but in the end none of that worked, or so you believe. After leading us for over two decades you still feel that we have not changed or successfully adapted to modern ways. At that assembly you used exactly the same derogatory language against us as you did thirty years earlier in your book, The Malay Dilemma.

All too often when your policies fail, your knee-jerk reaction is to immediately blame the people. You never cease to derogate us. Not once do you pause to ponder that may be, just may be, it is your policies and strategies that are wrong. Had you done so, your policies would have been more imaginative, their implementations more creative, and the results more to your expectations.

Contrary to your perception, we Malays have changed. If I may respectfully suggest, it is you who have not. You still insist on leading us in the same old ways. Excuse my brazenness; I suggest that instead of continually berating and scolding us, you try a different tack. Liberate us. Give us more freedom to be ourselves. Grant us our merdeka (independence). You have tried everything else and in your estimation, they have failed. Empower us instead.

There will be some of us who will make mistakes and fall by the wayside, but I can assure you that many more will succeed. When they do, reward them appropriately, not so much to encourage them (success is reward enough, they do not need a pat on the back from politicians and leaders) but to encourage others to emulate them. Make them the new role models and national heroes. For those unfortunate few who fail, if you cannot offer them encouragement, then just shut up. Let their failures be reminders to them and to others.

All too often you have rewarded mediocre Malays. You are easily mesmerized by their glibness, mistaking that for courage and wisdom. You listen only to those who are eager to tell you what you want to hear. You have been had. I need not remind you of the agonizing pain your many chosen “entrepreneurs” and budding “leaders” have caused you and the nation.

Had you cast your net far and deep, you could have avoided this predicament. We will never know where and when the next spark of genius will arise. One thing we do know from experience: Malay leaders right from the sultan in Hikayat Abdullah’s times are poor spotters of talent. Unfortunately, you are no exception.

Your own considerable leadership capability was long ignored. Indeed there was a time when you were considered a disruptive element, or worse, a derhaka (traitor). Only the wisdom and foresight of your predecessors Tun Razak and Hussein Onn saved you. Had the Tunku been as ruthless as you are today with your opponents, your fate would have been far different. More significantly, so too would the nation.

While your fawning ministers and supporters may still dutifully praise you when you castigate and chastise us, I am deeply offended. Significantly, the rest of Malaysia merely yawned, they have heard those same lectures once too often. What is particularly galling is that while you continually badger us to change, you yourself are stuck in your own feudal mentality and kampong (village) ways. While you with nauseating frequency exhort us to be thrifty and frugal, your own ostentatious lifestyles and other vulgar displays of wealth grate on us. Your “People Palace” at Putrajaya makes the White House a mere mansion.

You hector us to be berdikari (self reliant), but your kin and kind are the first to hog the public trough. You decry “money politics;” alas, UMNO degenerated into its present graft-ridden and patronage-laden culture while under your watch.

Malaysia enjoys unprecedented economic growth and spectacular improvement in its standard of living under your leadership. With prosperity comes greater tolerance. Under a different set of circumstances, our race alchemy could have easily exploded into another Bosnia. Instead, Malaysia today is a model plural society, a tribute to your stewardship. These together with your economic management (recent economic setbacks notwithstanding) are worthy achievements with few comparisons. No leader could achieve such extraordinary feats without the implicit trust and consent of his followers.

Such consent and trust however, are not without limits. And having experienced such superlative achievements, Malaysians would not now settle for mere satisfactory performances. Expectations have rightly risen. Unfortunately you do not sense this and continue to preach the same sermon.

Yet I do not give up hope. It is within you to make changes when you feel you need to. Who would have thought a Malay ultra (chauvinist) of the 1960’s would now command such wide and genuine support from non-Malays? You have successfully nursed the nation back to its economic health. And you did so by bravely defying the conventional wisdom. Your earlier defiance of the “Washington consensus” and advice of eminent economists brought much condemnation and ridicule; your later success, much praise and yes, also awe. I too revel in that reflected glory of your success.

You remind me of the brilliant surgeon who skillfully managed the life-threatening complication in his patient. Every one was suitably impressed and in awe of his virtuoso performance. That is until someone one quietly asks that basic question, “Doctor, how did your patient get that complication in the first place?”

Yes, you saved the nation economically. And yes, Malaysians are grateful for your brilliant deeds. Much as I praise your successful salvage operations, the gnawing questions remain. How could a mere currency speculator nearly cripple the country’s economy?

Next (and last) installment: The Next Young Mahathir

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