Grounding Those High-Flying Kampong Boys

By M. Bakri Musa

As I reflect on the many sordid scandals that have blighted Malaysia over the years, I am struck by one sobering observation. That is, the principal players are Malays like me, and of my vintage.

There are exceptions, of course. The mega-ringgit Port Klang Free Zone Development is one. Then there was the Malaysian Chinese Association’s Deposit Taking Cooperative debacle of the mid 1980s. So as not to slight the Indian community, there was the equally ugly affair of MAIKA, the investment arm of the Malaysian Indian Congress.

In East Malaysia there was the Chief Minister of Sabah, one Osu Bin Haji Sukam, who skipped on his multimillion-pound gambling debt incurred in a London casino. His Haji father would roll over in his grave on that one. On a far grander scale with respect to sheer avarice and outrageous obscenity would be the still-to-be-fully-accounted glutton of another chief minister, this one of Sarawak. Purists may argue that these two characters are not Melayu tulen (“pure” Malays), so I will not focus on them.

That would still leave me with plenty of loathsome characters with whom, embarrassingly, I share far too many ready commonalities. Meaning, among others, we were poor, from the kampong, and the first in our family to go to college.

Stated differently, in an unguarded moment, scratch a bit and our “kampongness” would ooze out of our pores. I could readily swap old familiar stories with these high-flying former kampong Malays, of having to light pelita (kerosene wick lamps) in order to study at night, of hauling water in pails hung at the ends of a bamboo pole painfully strung across the shoulder, and of back-breaking plowing of rice fields with our primitive cangkul (hoe).

Those are not just distant hazy memories. Every time I visit my kampong, I am painfully reminded of this harsh reality.

The Laggak (Swagger) of These Malays

I meet many of these high-flying Malays when they visit America on their taxpayer-paid junkets; you could not have guessed their humble origins from their laggak (swagger).

One official stayed at the presidential suite of a five-star hotel, the sort usually reserved for President Obama. She then had the audacity to complain that her car in which she was driven in was not the latest luxury model! As for her flight, it was first class all the way.

Recently Prime Minister Najib stayed at a $20,000-a-night penthouse suite of the Darling Hotel in Sydney while his wife splurged on a $100,000 shopping spree in a single day. Even if those figures were in our devalued ringgit, that would still be obscenely extravagant. Najib’s wife denied that Australian report, but having seen her behaviors while visiting America, I believe the Australian account. Najib’s predecessor was even more indulgent, what with his fondness for custom-made, ultra-luxury, Airbus and yacht!

Najib and his wife, self-styled Malaysia’s “first couple,” compare themselves to our sultans, who in turn model themselves after the British and Saudi monarchs. More the latter as the House of Windsor is now much more restrained; not so the House of Saud, still amply funded by their overflowing oil wells. Ours are fast drying up.

With such extravagances at the top, no wonder lesser kutus (characters) try to outdo each other. Consider one Khir Toyo, a former dentist. Thanks to a liberalized legal definition, this son of a Javanese immigrant is now Melayu tulen. He fancied himself a shrewd businessman who could drive a hard bargain and thus secured for himself a mega-mansion at half-price! The only problem was that his “victim” was someone who did considerable business with Selangor while Toyo was its Chief Minister.

It was of course no shrewd bargaining, merely of, as Prime Minister Najib would inelegantly but nonetheless accurately put it, “Gua tolong lu, lu tolong gua!” (You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours!). A more appropriate term would be extorting, but then this Khir Toyo was a product of our all-Malay education system and had only recently learned English; hence his inability to discern the not-so-subtle difference between negotiating and extorting.

Too bad this Toyo did not use his negotiating prowess to secure for Selangor similar lean contracts! Thank God that he is now a former chief minister! He would still be Chief Minister if Barisan Nasional had won the last election. This point is worth pondering come the next general elections.

The latest but by no means most egregious example of these sordid scandals involves the National Feedlot Corporation, tasked with spearheading a meat-production industry to help poor rural dwellers. At least that is the rationale, hence the generous government low-interest loans.

The principal there is one Dr. Salleh Ismail; he is now more known as the husband of a federal minister. Many Malays who reach the top today are not known for their brilliance; they may have degrees but often from third-rate universities or even blatant degree mills. Imbecility is the norm at the highest levels. Salleh however, is the exception. He is one of the early Malay PhDs in science, and not just any doctorate but one from Cornell. He is precisely the sort of Malay the government should be rewarding. So I have no problem with his getting the cattle project instead of some incompetent UMNO operatives or science-illiterate retired civil servants. Nor do I quibble with his putting his children on his company’s payroll; after all it is his company.

As with any project, the best way to get the best candidate or price would be through competitive bidding. Today, there are many more qualified Malays with proven entrepreneurial flair especially in this field of rearing animals. Many also have proven research expertise directly in the area. The likes of Salleh Ismail are no longer a rarity.

My greatest disappointment is with Dr. Salleh using taxpayer-subsidized loans to buy luxury condominiums. The irony of his getting special Bumiputra discounts! Dr. Salleh is of course free to do what he wants with his personal assets. Equally if not more reprehensible would be the responsible ministers and treasury officials; they should have disbursed the loan conditionally and in phases, upon proof of satisfactory performance.

This “cow gate” scandal pales in comparison to an earlier and much more expensive one involving Tajuddin Ramli and Malaysia Airlines. Like Salleh, Tajuddin is the son of a villager from Kedah, a predominantly Malay and very poor state. Like Salleh, Tajuddin too still has many poor relatives back in the kampongs. You would think that the memories of their still miserable relatives in the kampong would put a damper on the laggak of these high-flying Malays.

Shaming By Showing Them Up

Dr. Salleh is from Kelantan. I was on vacation there once and witnessed the appalling poverty that tugged at my sensibilities. I wonder whether Salleh feels that way too when he visits Bacok; those villagers could well be his cousins, once or twice removed. He could have invested in building homes for them and his would-be franchise farmers instead of splurging on luxury condos. He would then be hailed a hero instead of yet another spouse or relative of an UMNO minister hogging the public trough.

To develop our society we must give young Malays, especially those from the kampongs, a first-class education that would prepare them for the best universities, the kind that Dr. Salleh was privileged to partake. That is our only hope. Yes, some will forget their humble origin and be consumed with their newly-acquired luxury tastes, courtesy of Ketuanan Melayu of course. However, there will more than a few with enough conscience; their modest behaviors would then shame these high-flying pseudo-sophisticated kampong Malays with their taxpayer-supported laggak.

There is a viral video on the Internet showing Gary Locke, the current American Ambassador to China, carrying his own luggage and ordering his coffee at an airport cafe. Locke is an American Chinese, but his very American style – singularly lacking in pretensions – is causing much discomfort among Chinese officialdom.

We have many brilliant and unassuming former children of the kampongs. They are doing their best under very trying circumstances for our nation. I am humbled and more than just a bit embarrassed in their presence. Unlike Dr. Salleh or Khairy, these Malays are not married or related to top UMNO operatives. Many would consider that plain unlucky, but those smart dedicated Malays feel otherwise. They consider themselves lucky to be spared the corrupting influences around them.

In my forthcoming book Liberating the Malay Mind, I profiled a few of these admirable individuals. One in particular, Professor Badri Muhammad, deserves special mention. Like Dr. Salleh, Badri was also from a village in Kelantan and obtained his PhD (Dalhousie, in chemistry) a few years earlier than Dr. Salleh. Badri’s legacies however, are not luxury condominiums or multimillion-ringgit companies, but his children, biological as well as academic, the many undergraduates and doctoral candidates he inspired and guided. Yes, his biological children too have done well, sporting degrees from top universities, including one, Adam, a Carnegie Mellon PhD in engineering.

Here is another significant difference; despite Badri’s modest academic income, he was able to give his children a superior education sans JPA, MARA, or other Ketuanan Melayu crutches. Contrast that to one Rafidah Aziz, also of my vintage. Like other UMNO officials, she too had her share of scandals. On a visit to America many years ago she bragged about her daughter getting a MARA “scholarship.” Tiada maruah! (No sense of shame.)

With characters like Dr. Salleh, Tajuddin Ramli, Rafidah Aziz and Khir Toyo, it is tempting to indict Malays of my generation. However, I am certain that Malays like Badri are not the exceptions. There are for example Syed Mokthar Albukhary and Zaid Ibrahim; both were named as Asia’s philanthropic heroes by Forbes magazine a few years ago. Syed Mokthar gave generously to causes like education while Zaid has dedicated a home for the disabled in Kota Baru.

You do not realize how slothful you look until you are in the company of the well-groomed. Thus we need more Malays like Syed Mokthar, Zaid Ibrahim and my recently-departed dear friend Dr. Badri Muhammad to shame and bring to the ground these high-flying former kampong boys and girls, as Ambassador Locke is now doing to Chinese officials.

  1. #1 by k1980 on Monday, 20 February 2012 - 10:13 am

    //In East Malaysia there was the Chief Minister of Sabah, one Osu Bin Haji Sukam..//

    Why no mention of the other CM in East malaysia who is a trillionaire?

  2. #2 by yhsiew on Monday, 20 February 2012 - 10:31 am

    Corruption has nothing with do with race or whether the person involved is a kampung/urban dweller. It is the GREED of the human heart that matters.

  3. #3 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Monday, 20 February 2012 - 10:58 am

    Dear Bakri Musa,

    I am no salesperson. And I am on no commission for doing what I am about to do. In short, I am only expressing my personal suggestion – an expression which will not benefit me at all. You see there is a spectacle shop in bangsar village. The shop sells good frames and makes good glasses too. Do check it out! You need a new pair of spectacles esp that one which bears the brand “K.U.” – “Ketuanan Umnoputras” in short.

    You see, according to K.U. all of the above that you have described are birth rights. And no exercise of one’s birth right can be wrong or faulted. With due respect to you phD qualification, if you do have difficulty understanding this statement, then for malaysia’s sake pls get yourself a pair of K.U. glasses.


  4. #4 by SENGLANG on Monday, 20 February 2012 - 12:35 pm

    This was how Malaysia has undergone. just wonder anyone has quantified those losses. If proper managed, Malaysia should be much better than countries like South Korea, Japan and Singapore.

    It was very unfortunate that many have lost their way and mind along the highway. May be this just the mentality of those people as they are not mentality prepared to see money. Once they see money they turn into monsters and consumed in total by the materialistic mind

  5. #5 by Godfather on Monday, 20 February 2012 - 1:16 pm

    This was Mamakthir’s socio-engineering fiasco. Throwing money at those who do not understand the concept of accountability or morality would never work in any society. It’s Darwinian to understand that people cannot thrive on the “heads I win, tails you lose” mentality.

    Hundreds of billions went down the drain for support of people like Tajudin Ramli, Halim Saad, etc etc. Now they can’t admit their mistake, can they ?

  6. #6 by the reds on Monday, 20 February 2012 - 9:33 pm

    Our education system needs a total revamp! Our (those born after 80s) English command really sucks! Unlike those born before 80s, they speak a good English! Believe it or not??? Today Kampong boys will remain as Kampong boys! Unlike Bakri’s era, kampong boys got good education, that’s why Bakri is in US! At present, I believe not many youngsters are capable to go to US with overseas scholarship (Fullbright’s ). They only can go under their parents’ scholarship or MARA or JPA scholarship (i.e., Malaysian’s money).

  7. #7 by boh-liao on Tuesday, 21 February 2012 - 2:27 am

    D UmnoB kakis dat he mentioned, d way how they prospered under NEP, still NOT enuf, wanted more n cheated 4 their offspring 2 continue 2 prosper under NEP
    NEVER ENDING PARASITISM, 1 generation after another – dis is WHAT rakyat FED UP with, d abuse of NEP

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