Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Are Malaysian Muslims still moderate?

The Transport Minister (and mind you not the Home Minister/Deputy Prime Minister) says there are at least 50,000 sympathizers of the Islamic State (IS) militants in Malaysia. He also said around 100 Malaysians are fighting in Syria and Iraq with the IS. Others estimate around 200 or more Malaysians who are actively fighting alongside IS militants. Over the past couple of years, at least 120 Malaysians have been arrested either trying to join IS or returning from fighting with IS. A recent leaked police memo highlighted the risk of suicide bombers running around KL. More revealing is a recent PEW survey of support for IS in Malaysia as shown below.

If this poll is to be taken at face value, people having a favorable view of IS in Malaysia at 11% of the population is amongst the highest compared to other predominantly Muslim countries. Despite the widespread media coverage of IS, a shocking 25% of Malaysians surveyed did not have an opinion on IS. It is likely that a proportion of these Malaysians did not want to share their real views on IS for whatever reasons.

The Government seems to be in denial that we have a serious threat of Islamic militancy festering amidst us. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), the Sedition Act and the recently passed National Security Council Bill are seemingly to counter the threat of Islamic militancy. However the problem is more deep rooted. UMNO has shamelessly exploited Islam to stay in power in an attempt to outIslamicize PAS and to disguise the rot within. Islam will never condone the corruption and abuse of power that is at the core of UMNO. PAS itself is nebulous about IS and has never taken a clear stance against Islamic extremism. While the Prime Minister has recently taken a supposedly strong public stance against IS, he was also the one to encourage Malaysians to emulate the bravery of IS fighters in Iraq. Witness his pandering to PAS in the recent UMNO General Assembly and his pathetic attempts to bolster his Islamic credentials in his speech.

This hypocrisy has to stop and both PAS and UMNO should stand up and declare publicly their respective positions on Islamic extremism. Malaysian Muslims need to face head on the challenges of global Islamic extremism and address these in a thoughtful and honest way bearing in mind that they live as part of a multiethnic and multireligious society. This soul searching is best conducted through open and honest discourse amongst reasonable people and not dominated by dictates and diatribes from the self annointed clerics. Continuing to deny the rise of Islamic extremism and merely hiding behind proclamations of being a moderate Islamic state is a sure path towards disaster.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

What it means to be a Malaysian

Someone told me that I need to lighten up as they find my blog all doom and gloom. I have taken heed. I have made a list of things that mean inclusive Malaysia for me. The common everyday things that define all Malaysians. There is a bit of a generational bias here though and in no particular order, here goes:

Roti canai and teh tarik. All Malaysians enjoy roti canai and teh tarik (kurang manis or not).

Kumpulan Alleycats. Songs about longing and heart break in Malay, written by Malays and performed by Indians and Chinese for generations of Malaysians. What can top that for inclusiveness?

P. Ramlee movies. I grew up on them. We need remakes for the current generation.

Lat cartoons. Bulat, the quintessential Malaysian who captures Malaysia in a way that no one else has been able to. Time to bring out new editions and a TV series.

Mee goreng and nasi lemak. Yes food again but Malaysians are bound together by cuisine than anything else. A National Food Day?

Diabetes. No surprises here given our passion for food!

Nicol David. Our world champion of mixed ancestry whose rock star appeal cuts across the spectrum of Malaysian society.

Bahasa Malaysia. Malay as she is spoken in amazing variety from Perlis to Sarawak. Efforts to create Bahasa Baku and Bahasa Melayu have floundered against the Malaysian ability to speak as they will

Manglish. Know what I mean lah?

Fear of the supernatural. Spirits, bomohs, black magic, fortune tellers…you name it and every Malaysian will have a story or knows someone who has a story

Football. We may not be world beaters but which Malaysian has not played or watched bola sepak? The passion of fans of Liverpool and Manchester United FCs rival that of those in the UK.

Lepak. Whether in roadside stalls, golf clubs or malls, lepak is a national past time.

Ang pows. Those red packets now come in a variety of colors from green to yellow to celebrate all festivals.

Hospital Kerajaan (GH). Our world class public health care system brings all Malaysians together to share their ailments and seek common bonds.

Honda cub. The ubiquitous Malaysian mode of transport before the Protons and Peroduas. Also the Suzukis and Yamahas.

Yay for Inclusive Malaysia!

The Unexplained Money Not Objectionable (UMNO) Assembly

The UMNO assembly ended with a whimper. The party President and his coterie succeeded in drowning out any honest question or substantive debate with empty rhetoric. No issue was too difficult to avoid or obfuscate.

Can the President explain the unaccounted for donations in his personal account?
We need a united UMNO to protect Malays from the DAP and the Jews.
Can the leadership explain Malaysia’s position on climate change and the Paris conference?
What is UMNO’s position on Islamic extremism and the international backlash against violence committed in the name of Islam?
Malaysia is a moderate Muslim nation and I can quote extensively from the Koran.
What about the weak ringgit and the struggling economy?
Trust me.
What about 1Malaysia?
UMNO will form a perfect Malaysia with PAS.
What do think about Dr. Mahathir’s criticism of your leadership?
What about Muhyiddin?
I will shake his hand.
Do you think Malaysian firms are going to be affected by the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA)?
Do not worry.

The thinking UMNO members must be weeping in shame and frustration. UMNO has become a tool for a few to enrich themselves and bamboozle the rest with despicable ethnic and religious bigotry. Naked power play and subverting the institutions of state for political survival is now firmly in UMNO's DNA and is being openly displayed by the current scandal ridden President. Reform from within is near impossible given the extent to which corruption is entrenched and power is manipulated within all levels of UMNO. The thinking UMNO members need to stop weeping and figure out how to get rid of the most incompetent and corrupt leadership that UMNO has ever had in its history. That is if there are any still left standing...thinking UMNO members I mean.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

1Malaysia in tatters

One must give due credit to Prime Minister Najib Razak for his attempt at developing an inclusive Malaysia through the One Malaysia concept which was launched 5 years ago. 1Malaysia was to unite all Malaysians under a common set of values transcending ethnicity and religion evolving around a culture of excellence, perseverance, humility, acceptance, loyalty, meritocracy, education and integrity (www.1Malaysia.com.my). The 27 products under the concept ranged from the noble such as free medical treatment for senior citizens, low risk maternity centers, mobile clinics and student discount cards to the rather exotic including a people’s menu, people’s fish shop and people’s shop. 1MDB was however not part of the original 1Malaysia program.

After 5 years of 1Malaysia, it does not take a genius to figure out that Malaysia is worse off and even more divided than before. Although I must admit that PM Najib has quite an inclusive outlook looking at his impressive 1MDB friends ranging from rich Arab sheikhs to international bankers and a playboy Malaysian Chinese millionaire. Under the circumstances, one cannot really fault him for sacrificing meritocracy for loyalty in the appointment of his Deputy PM and the new Attorney General while he is persevering to hang on to power by all means.  Integrity was a foregone conclusion in any case given the decadent state of UMNO and BN that he inherited and which he has now taken to new depths of ignominy. Culture of excellence, humility, acceptance and education are nice words to include in speeches but most Malaysians would like to see some evidence of actions matching words (or in Malay cakap tak serupa bikin).

Unfortunately for Najib, the 1MDB fiasco involving dodgy financial transactions overshadows whatever benefits were brought about by the 1Malaysia concept and programs. There was and continues to be absolutely no socio-economic rationale for 1MDB given that Khazanah Malaysia, TNB or a myriad of other GLCs and private investors were better placed to carry out the intended real estate and energy investments. If these more established corporate players were unable or unwilling to take on these new investments or were denied these opportunities, it makes the 1MDB proposition even more dubious.

If anything, 1MDB has provided a glimpse into the workings of the murky depths of the UMNO-led BN government where the nation’s interests are sacrificed for the wealth of politicians and their cronies. This is probably the most significant unintended outcome of 1Malaysia: to unite all thinking Malaysians against the greed, corruption and incompetence of the UMNO/BN leadership. The UMNO leadership is too compromised for any hope in cleaning house through internal reforms. The rest of the BN parties depending on UMNO’s gravy train have no real incentives to reform. The only hope for Malaysia and Malaysians is to throw out UMNO/BN at the next general elections.

Monday, July 20, 2015

A world class Malaysian university

What would it take for a Malaysian university to be among the top 100 universities in Asia? The Times Higher Education World University Rankings compares university performance across their core missions - teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook using 13 performance indicators. There is no Malaysian university in the top 100 in Asia compared to two universities from Singapore and surprisingly two from Thailand.


What is preventing our universities from being globally competitive? Surely it is not the shortage of resources: Malaysian public universities received almost 25% of the total expenditure on education and training (about RM 12 billion in 2013). Yet surveys show that more than 25% of university graduates in 2012 had not secured a job 6 months after graduation. At the same time, Malaysian employers are lamenting a shortage of talent as a major constraint in growing their business. There is evidently a mismatch between what the local universities are producing and what the labor market needs leading to underemployment and frustration amongst university graduates. Many of them turn to the public sector for employment which means that the public sector is not attracting the best and brightest talent.


Then there are the over 56,000 Malaysian students studying in foreign universities, many of whom are likely to be excellent students and a number of whom are also sponsored through Government scholarships. There are no publicly available tracer studies on the career prospects of these students and their competitiveness in the labor market compared to the graduates of Malaysian universities (one can however speculate that they are likely to be more competitive). Access to university education for young Malaysians is unequal and largely influenced by household income: while 40% of young adults from the top quintile of Malaysians (by household income) have a university degree, only 5% from the bottom 60% have a degree.


The challenge for Malaysia therefore is both to expand opportunities for all Malaysians to have a university education as well as improve the quality and relevance of university education. There are obvious areas for improvement focusing on creating a more meritocratic and open culture in universities. This requires a fundamental reform of the university system starting with the Ministry of Higher Education. However that may be too ambitious an undertaking and it may be more pragmatic to focus efforts on one university as a pilot. This would require revamping the university leadership, recruiting and rewarding the best academics and researchers irrespective of their origin or ethnicity, selecting the best qualified students and establishing a culture of excellence in research and teaching, learning from the best experiences in the world. Above all, the Government needs to realize that throwing more money at the current system and seeking band aid fixes without fundamental reforms is unlikely to get any lasting or meaningful impacts.

Malaysians deserve better education

The Low Yat incident has brought into sharp focus how our education system is failing Malaysians. Half of Malaysian 15 year olds are functionally illiterate. At the same time, half of Malaysian employers in a recent survey identified the shortage of talent as a constraint for future economic growth. The under-schooled youth end up in the job market with low basic numeracy and literacy skills and with little if any communication or problem-solving abilities. Yet they live in a society that is visibly prosperous and of course they want their share of the good life. Being unemployed or under employed, this group of Malaysian youth is ripe for recruitment by the criminal fringe elements which promise them the wealth and status that they know they cannot get otherwise.

Clearly the national educational system has failed these Malaysian youth. While we lament over how poorly Malaysian kids are performing in global standardized testing, there is a clear correlation between socio-economic status and educational performance with the schools catering for poorer Malaysians being more likely to be under resourced and under managed. Access is still a challenge: about a third of kids from rural households live more than 5 km away from the nearest secondary school.

The quality of teaching and school leadership and management remains a significant challenge. The respect and social status enjoyed by teachers and school heads has eroded over the years. The blatant politicization of the educational system has not only marginalized non-Malay teachers and parents but also disillusioned all teachers who are committed to excellence. Mediocrity and group thinking in schools has overshadowed innovation and passion and it is not surprising that the cream of Malaysian school leavers do not view teaching as a preferred career option. Most tragically, the education system has failed in creating an integrated, inclusive Malaysian society and is more ethnically and socially polarized today than at independence.
The Low Yat rioters and the many others like them, irrespective of ethnicity, are a product of a school system that is simply broken. Clearly it is not a problem of a lack of resources but effectiveness of delivery and results. In 2013, the Government spent about RM54 billion on education and training of which around 10% was on post-secondary technical, vocational training and labor market programs. It is time we take a hard look at the effectiveness of this considerable public spending.  To start with perhaps we need a more reform minded Minister of Education who has a stellar track record as an educationist and who is committed to excellence irrespective of ethnicity and political affiliations.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Overpaid lawmakers?

Recent statistics from the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) reveal that one third of Malaysian workers earn less than RM 1,000 per month and about 40% earn less than RM 2000 per month. The lower wage growth for low income wage earners occurs in an environment of stagnant wage share of national income. The wage share of national income has actually declined from 33.8% in 1970 to 32.9% in 2012 while at the same time corporate profits increased from 50% to 67% of national income. There is a clear disparity between labor productivity and wages. Annual wage growth is about 2.6% despite labor productivity increasing at 6.7% which reveals labor market inefficiencies and depressed wages due to weakened collective bargaining power and poorly regulated migrant labor. This is a critical challenge which we need to be concerned about for sustained productivity-led growth.

Contrast this with the recent hefty salary increases that our lawmakers awarded themselves (presumably in rare unanimity between the ruling and opposition lawmakers). The new monthly salary of about RM 16,000 which supplemented by allowances could reportedly be up to RM 35,000 does seem extravagant especially given the current economic challenges and the national debate on GST and the minimum wage. In very simple terms, this means that a typical Wakil Rakyat will earn about 18 times more than the typical worker in his or her constituency. To stretch this point a bit further, an elected representative could take home about 40 times the national minimum monthly wage.

The rationale for the increase is to quote the Minister: “the duty of MPs is getting heavier in carrying out the high hopes of the people, and the increase will boost the spirit of the elected representatives to work with more commitment and dedication”. Presumably this heavier duty includes staying awake in the middle of the night to sneak through repressive legislation to further stifle fundamental liberties of the people who elected them in the first place. One would think that elected representatives who lack commitment and dedication will be booted out by their constituents and that should be sufficient incentive to boost their spirits. Not to mention the lucrative licenses, contracts, business deals and other rewards that at least most BN MPs seem to consider as their entitlement.

There is no question that our lawmakers need to be compensated appropriately especially in order to discourage corruption. Not to begrudge the salary increases but I think it is only fair that we demand more from them. To start with, every elected representative needs to publicly declare his or her wealth and income. It would also help to have transparent performance metrics such as an annual report card so that the electorate can tell which representative lacks commitment and dedication. And yes, presumably lawmakers will be equally generous when they decide on what the new national minimum wage should be this year.