Thursday, July 30, 2009

Robert Kuok Hock Nien's notes on the past sixty years

If you've read Ooi Kee Beng's biography of Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, The Reluctant Politician you would have gotten a glimpse of the quiet role that Malaysians like Robert Kuok has played in the development of the country and its challenges.

I am still intrigued with the fact, as revealed in that book, that Kuok and Tun Dr Ismail were virtually neighbours in Johor. And, I wonder whether they could have imagined how their significant future roles in Malaysia would be when the strolled past each other's homes in their youth.

I got this from a piece in Facebook. Since they are Kuok's own notes of the past 60 years, I should leave the great man's words alone for you to read:


Robert Kuok Hock Nien's notes on the past sixty years

(On the occasion of Kuok Group’s 60th Anniversary 10 April 2009)

(1) My brothers and I owe our upbringing completely to Mother. She was steeped in Ru-Jiao – the teachings of Confucius, Mencius, Laozi and other Chinese sages. Ru-Jiao teaches the correct behaviour for a human being on his life on earth. Mother gently, and sometimes strongly, drummed into the minds of her three boys the values of honesty, of never cheating, lying, stealing or envying other people their material wealth or physical attributes.

(2) Father died on 25 December 1948 night without leaving a will. Following the Japanese surrender, he had re-registered the firm as a sole proprietorship. We went to court to get an appointment as managers, permitting us to continue to manage Tong Seng & Co. The judge said that, as there were two widows, the firm and the estate should be wound up.

(3) We decide to establish Kuok Brothers Limited. In mid-January 1949, five of us met at a small roundtable in our home in Johore Bahru. Present were my MOTHER, cousin number five HOCK CHIN, cousin number twelve HOCK SENG, my brother HOCK KHEE nicknamed Philip (a..k.a. cousin number seventeen), and myself (a.k.a. cousin number twenty). We sat down and Mother said, “Nien, would you like to start?” I said, “Fine, yes I will start.” To cut the long story short, we got started, and commenced business from a little shop house in Johore Bharu on 1 April 1949.

(4) As a young man, I thought there was no substitute for hard work and thinking up good, honest business plans and, without respite, pushing them along. There will always be business on earth. Be humble; be straight; don’t be crooked; don’t take advantage of people. To be a successful businessman, I think you really need to brush all your senses every morning, just as you brush your teeth. I coined the phrase “honing your senses” in business: your vision, hearing, sense of smell, touch and taste. All these senses come in very useful.

(5) Mother was the captain of our ship.. She saw and sensed everything, but being a wise person she didn’t interfere. Yet she was the background influence, the glue that bound the Group together. She taught my cousins and my brothers and me never to be greedy, and that in making money one could practise high morality. She stressed that whenever the firm does well it should make donations to the charities operating in our societies. She always kept us focused on the big picture in business. For example: avoid businesses that bring harm, destruction or grief to people. This includes trades like gambling, drugs, arms sales, loan-sharking and prostitution.

(6) We started as little fish swimming in a bathtub. From there we went to a lake and now we are in the open seas.. Today our businesses cover many industries and our operations are worldwide but this would not have been possible without the vision of the founding members, the dedicated contributions and loyalty of our colleagues and employees, and very importantly the strong moral principles espoused by my mother.

(7) When I hire staff, I look for honest, hardworking, intelligent people. When I look candidates in the eye, they must appear very honest to me. I do not look for MBAs or exceptional students. You may hire a brilliant man, summa cum laude, first-class honours, but if his mind is not a fair one or if he has a warped attitude in life, does brilliance really matter?

(8) Among the first employees were Lau Teo Chin (Ee Wor), Kwok Chin Luang (Ee Luang), Othman Samad (Kadir) and an Indian accountant called Joachim who was a devout Roman Catholic and who travelled in every day from Singapore where he lived.

(9) I would like on this special occasion to pay tribute to them and in particular to those who were with us in the early days; many of whom are no longer here. I have already mentioned Lau Teo Chin (Ee Wor) and Kwok Chin Luang (Ee Luang) and Othman Samad (Kadir), there are others like Lean Chye Huat, who is not here today due to failing eyesight, and Yusuf Sharif who passed away in his home country India about one and a half years ago and the late Lee Siew Wah, and others who all gave solid and unstinting support and devotion to the Company. It saddens me that in those early difficult years these pioneers did not enjoy significant and substantial rewards but such is the order of things and a most unfortunate aspect of capitalism. However through our Group and employee Foundations, today we are able to help their descendants whenever there is a need to.

(10) I have learnt that the success of a company must depend on the unity of all its employees. We are all in the same boat rowing against the current and tide and every able person must pull the oars to move the boat forward. Also, we must relentlessly endeavour to maintain and practise the values of integrity and honesty, and eschew and reject greed and arrogance.

(11) A few words of caution to all businessmen and women. I recall the Chinese saying: shibai nai chenggong zhi mu (failure is the mother of success). But in the last thirty years of my business life, I have come to the conclusion that the reverse phrase is even truer of today’s world: chenggong nai shibai zhi mu. Success often breeds failure, because it makes you arrogant, complacent and, therefore, lower your guard.

(12) The way forward for this world is through capitalism. Even China has come to realise it. But it’s equally true that capitalism, if allowed to snowball along unchecked, can in many ways become destructive. Capitalism needs to be inspected under a magnifying glass once a day, a super-magnifying glass once a week, and put through the cleaning machine once a month.

In capitalism, man needs elements of ambition and greed to drive him. But where does ambition end and greed take over? That’s why I say that capitalism, if left to its own devices, will snowball along, roll down the hill and cause a lot of damage. So a sound capitalist system requires very strongly led, enlightened, wise governments. That means politician-statesmen willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their people. I don’t mean politicians who are there for fame, glory and to line their pockets.

(13) To my mind the two great challenges are the restoration of education in morals and the establishment of a rule of law. You must begin from the root up, imbuing and infusing moral lessons and morality into youth, both at home and from kindergarten and primary school upward through university. To accept the principle of rule of law; then you have to train upright judges and lawyers to uphold the legal system.

(14) Wealth should be used for two main purposes. One: for the generation of greater wealth; in other words, you continue to invest, creating prosperity and jobs in the country. Two: part of your wealth should be applied to the betterment of mankind, either by acts of pure philanthropy or by investment in research and development along the frontiers of science, space, health care and so forth.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Farewell Yasmin Ahmad

I join all Malaysians in expressing my profound sorrow at the news of Yasmin Ahmad's passing. from here.

The Malaysian Insider reports that:

Renowned film and advertising director Yasmin Ahmad died here at about 11.25 pm last night.

Her death was confirmed by Media Prime Group Chief Operations Officer Datuk Seri Ahmad Farid Ridzuan, who was at the Damansara Specialist Hospital, when contacted by Bernama.

Yasmin, 51, collapsed while presenting a working paper at Sri Pentas, the headquarters of the private television station TV3 on Thursday and was rushed to the Damnsara Specialists Hospital.

She was reported to have suffered a stroke and brain haemorrhage.

Read her blog here.

This Benama's eulogy of sorts:

Yasmin Ahmad left a legacy of her works in the film and advertisement arenas, thriving on the themes of love, family ties and comedy against the backdrop of multiracial Malaysia.

Born in Bukit Treh, Muar, Johor on July 1 1958, Yasmin, who graduated in psychology from Newcastle University, United Kingdom, had won local and international creativity awards.

Married to Abdullah Tan Yew Leong, she began her career as a copywriter with Ogilvy & Mather before joining Leo Burnnett as joint creative director in 1993 and rose to become its creative executive director until her death.

Her creativity could be seen in many Petronas' commercials and evoked emotion of the viewers especially during the Aidilfitri celebration which would certainly be missed by viewers this year.

In the filming industry, Yasmin, however, drew much controversy in view of her openness and boldness in analysing social issues.

She was at the mercy of critics since her first movie, "Rabun" was screened in 2003 followed by "Sepet" (2004), "Gubra" (2006), "Mukhsin" (2006), "Muallaf" (2008) and Talentime (2009).

Despite the drawbacks, she also earned rave reviews for "Sepet" which was accorded the Best Film Award and the Best Original Screenplay Award at the Malaysian Film Festival 2005.

"Sepet" also bagged several international awards, namely the Asian Film Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival 2005, the Grand Prix Award at the Creteil International Women's Film Festival in the same year.

"Gubra" won the Best Screenplay award at the Malaysian Film Festival 2006.

"Muhsin" won the Generation kplus - Best Feature Film and the Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk Grand Prix award at the Berlin International Film Festival.

"Mukhsin" also won the Best Asean Film at the Cinemanila International Film Festival 2007.

"Muallaf" won the Asian Film Award - Special Mention at the Tokyo International Film Festival 2008.

While leaving indelible mark at home, Yasmin's movies gained international recognition as they were shown in Berlin, San Francisco, Singapore and at the Cannes Film Festival.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Ku Li and echoes of Adlai Stevenson

I feel compelled to delve a little deeper into the motivations of Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah in the context of the current swirl of political and institutional turmoil in Malaysia. The political turmoil is obvious to all.

Less so, is the institutional turmoil.

Who will guard the guards themselves?
Before 1987 (a year I seem to re-visit constantly as the zeroth point from which the timeline of Malaysia's current political and institutional turmoil commences), the no-brainer principle was that Malaysia's Federal Constitution contained (I say it in the past tense in light of recent mind-numbing judicial pronouncements from the Federal Court) features of the separation of powers doctrine where the Executive branch of government would be audited by the Legislature and, if there is any legal action, by the Judiciary.

Tunku Abdul Rahman accepted this as did Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Hussein Onn. All three gentlemen read law in England (not that the jurisdiction nor geography is of any relevance in the context of this point but, that the knowledge and skills acquired are).

Their successors have taken a different view. Whether knowledge and understanding of the law should have any bearing on this attitudinal shift is moot. I just like to highlight this.

The issue of institutional turmoil is very real. The MACC's handling of Teoh Beng Hock is the most recent and, glaring example.

So, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guards themselves?

If the Legislature can no longer audit the Executive and, if there is scepticism whether the Judiciary has the necessary independence on issues involving Executive action, then, what is left in the context of orderly constitutional government?

It is no wonder that new Malaysian political leaders have exhibited less and less respect for Malaysia's constitutional institutions in the past two decades.

Where do we go from here?

This is the issue that haunts Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. It is an issue that haunts me. It is an issue that should haunt all Malaysians.

Trying to understand Ku Li
I have never met Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. But, I believe his actions in forming Semangat '46; his subsequent return to UMNO; and, his refusal to accept Zaid Ibrahim's invitation, can be considered in other ways.

Many Malaysians, particularly those that are partisan with Pakatan Rakyat are exasperated with Tengku Razaleigh's decision to rebuff Zaid's invitation. Many have said that Tengku Razaleigh is not relevant anyway or, that he, too, carries political baggage. That, with the greatest of respect, is nonsense and, an unfair trivialisation of Tengku Razaleigh's continued importance within Malaysia's polity.

In the hotchpot of Malaysia the citizenry practises a Babel-like habit of talking at cross-purposes. This is not so much due to multi-lingualism but, more to do with endless politicking and political spin.

In such a milieu, many of us are thankful when a respected personage in the form of a Sultan, a political leader or, eminent Malaysian, makes a timely public statement that is sensible and wise and, has the effect of soothing ruffled feathers and, injecting a dose of wise perspective on a issue that threatens to tear the socio-political fabric.

For me, Tengku Razaleigh is one such person.

His political stance is always principled. But his motivations can be exasperatingly enigmatic to many.

After writing the previous post my mind wandered back to Adlai Stevenson whose political position in the raucous American political process, in this case the Democratic Presidential Primary of 1959, was at issue.

The Adlai Stevenson parallel
Stevenson was the Democratic Presidential Candidate in 1952 and 1956. In both attempts he lost to the Republican Party's Dwight Eisenhower.

Despite two debilitating defeats, Stevenson was a much-respected and popular leader within the Democratic Party. It also helped tremendously that the grande dame of the Democrats, Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of Franklin D. Roosevelt, was an overt supporter of Stevenson's. This was the case in 1959, when the Democratic Primaries was in full swing and approaching its climax in the Los Angeles Democratic Convention.

Stevenson had hardly campaigned throughout the Primaries. But, party rules permitted members to draft a candidate who would be eligible for contention as a candidate of the party without having to undergo the bruising battles in the Primaries.

To borrow the phrase from my previous post, the eager politician in this story was John F Kennedy. Stevenson was the reluctant politician.

Kennedy's political machine was understandably alarmed at the prospect of a last-minute draft candidate in the form of Stevenson that threatened to undo and destroy more than four years of tremendous groundwork.

Everyone knows that Kennedy took the Democratic nomination and went on to defeat Richard Nixon in what was the slimmest majority ever for a presidential contest...until Bush versus Gore in 2000.

Where I'm leading to after the necessary contextual digression, is this insightful passage in a seminal book on American politics, The Making of the President 1960 by one of the best biographical-journalist-author that I have come across, Theodore H. White. White's passage describes the mindset of Stevenson in the context of American public life and its politics:

If this happy and placid man gave political calculators an impression of total schizophrenia, the reason was a simple one - Adlai Stevenson was and, I believe, remains torn in attitude to the two great systems of power that mesh in the unity of the American Presidency. Stevenson's attitude to public affairs approaches a nobility rarely encountered in the political system of any country; but his attitude to politics - the grubby, rooty politics of noise and deals and cruelties and chicaneries - is one of contempt. Yet public affairs and politics are linked as are love and sex. Stevenson's attitude to politics has always seemed that of a man who believes love is the most ennobling of human emotions while the mechanics of sex are dirty and squalid.

This seemed to be the quality of his reflections. "Deep down," said his closest friend during the winter months of 1959-1960, "he wants it. But he wants the Convention to come to him, he doesn't want to go to the Convention."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ku Li's response to Zaid's offer

It is no surprise that Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah has gently rebuffed Zaid Ibrahim's public invitation for the former to join PKR.

No surprise in that Tengku Razaleigh has struck many of us as a different class of political leader - one that harks back to the first 2 decades after Merdeka.

That was an era that bore an indelible ethos of high ideals and principles. It was an era where political players and leaders truly believed that participation in politics and public life bore with it a responsibility and a conscience.

It was a time when loyalty was a treasured attribute.

Our sense of that time is reflected in the grainy monotone of photographs and newsreels of suited and smiling personages. But, beyond the facia of smiles, undisputed historical and archival records confirm and affirm that it was indeed a golden age where the harsh reality of the Second World War, the Japanese Occupation and the Communist insurrection was tempered by men and women who believed in a better future for a land that bore many ethnic groups.

So, here we have the ever-serendipitous and genteel Tengku Razaleigh eschewing Zaid Ibrahim's invitation. These are his reasons:

I am not in Umno because I “harbour hope of saving Umno” in its present incarnation. I remain because the cause for which Umno was formed, and the principles which guided its promotion, has not gone away just because we have lost our way 60 years later, and they need to be upheld.

The high principle of Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Razak and Tun Ismail, their devotion to nationbuilding, their incorruptibility, their sense of fair play and their devotion to duty, exemplified for me as a young man the meaning of this cause, and how it could be both Malay and Malaysian, nationalist and cosmopolitan, traditional and contemporary, at one and the same time.

The Malay cause was not premised on an eternal zero sum game between the native and the immigrant. We meant to build a nation united by a prosperous, confident and enlightened Malay community, not a permanent state of divide and rule by political lowlife. We meant to foster Malay leadership worthy of national leadership, and we looked to our common future as Malaysia rather than to our past as people accidentally brought together by colonial history.

So much is ideal. Yet it is important that we hold up ideals in today’s moral chaos. The future of our political system lies in a healthy, competitive democracy. If so, whether or not it looks realistic right now, we shall need a reformed incarnation of this nation’s most important political party. The Umno ideal which I embraced half a century ago has a role to play in the future we hope for.

A second reason I shall not be accepting Zaid’s kind offer is that things have deteriorated to the point that party affiliation is really not the issue anymore. The issue is how we are to save our country.

Some may consider his first line of reasoning mildly quixotic. But, if you trouble yourself to understand the context that I have sketched poorly above, you may get an idea of Tengku Razaleigh's values and, his ideals.

Persuasive as the first reason is, to me the key reason may be the second one. The issue is how we are to save our country.

Recall Ooi Kee Beng's biography of Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman. The title of the biography was The Reluctant Politician. from here.

Perhaps that title points to the crux of the infection that has spread virally to all levels of the Malaysian political sphere. There are no longer any reluctant politicians, there are only eager politicians. Especially over-eager ones.

Clearly what Malaysia desperately needs are more reluctant politicians.

And, underlying all this must surely be that Tengku Razaleigh is from the category of Malaysians who understand clearly that constitutional and government institutions are built and developed over time based on the principles of integrity and transparency.

When institutions are abused by those who wield temporal power (though they believe it is permanent power), Malaysia as a nation is on a destructive path.

Since 1987 (a sad, sad tragic year), there has been a terrible trend where constitutional and government institutions are regarded as tools of those wielding political power.

The recent actions of the MACC is the nadir of this trend.

The nightmare is that there are new depths being plumbed.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

PPSMI: Bila sesat, balik ke pangkal jalan

The Malay folk wisdom states, Bila sesat, balik ke pangkal jalan which can be loosely translated as, If you are lost, return to the starting point (or the origin).

It is submitted that the pangkal jalan in the context of Malaysian education must irrefutably be the Razak Report of 1956, the official name being Report of the Education Committee 1956. The full Report is available here.

pix from here.

The key objective of the Razak Report was, "to examine the present education policy...and to recommend any alterations or adaptations that are necessary with a view to establishing a national system of education acceptable to the people of the Federation as a whole; which will satisfy their needs and promote their cultural, social, economic and political development as a nation; having regard to the intention to make Malay the national language of the country, whilst preserving and sustaining the growth of the languages and cultures of other communities living in the country".

The Razak Report recommended an eventual introduction of an integrated national system of education that was to be based on a common syllabus and suited to the needs of a developing nation and polygenous society.

Firstly, there were to be two broad categories of primary schools. One was the Standard or National primary schools with the Malay language as the medium of instruction. The other were National-type primary schools in which the main medium of instruction would either be Mandarin, Tamil or the English language.

Furthermore, the Malay and English languages were to be compulsory subjects in every category of schools regardless of its main language medium of instruction.

The Razak Report also stated its intention to establish National and National-type secondary schools in which there would be a common syllabus where the Malay and English languages would be made compulsory.

Given their vintage most of the current Cabinet members are products of the Razak Report.

How quickly we forget our foundation years!

In the Rahman Talib Report of 1961 that reviewed and endorsed the Razak Report, many further provisions were made to allow Malay students easier passage into National-type schools with the English medium of instruction.

In the decades following these two seminal Reports, a strange and myopic form of parochialism set in to distort the original educational policy.

In his outstanding 1958 book, The Affluent Society, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote:

Economic growth - the expansion of economic output - requires an increase in the quantity of productive plant and equipment of the country or in its quality or, as in the usual case, in both. This is fully agreed. The increase in quantity is capital formation. The increase in quality is technological advance.

In addition to the entrepreneurs (and perhaps one should add, the accountants and clerks) who were more or less automatically forthcoming, modern economic activity now requires a great number of trained and qualified people. Investment in human beings is, prima facie, as important as investment in material capital. The one, in its modern complexity, depends on the other.

What is more important, the improvement in capital-technological advance- is now almost wholly dependent on investment in education, training and scientific opportunity for individuals.

John F. Kennedy, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Jawaharlal Nehru, in a photo from Galbraith’s book, ‘‘Ambassador’s Journal: A Personal Account of the Kennedy Years.’’
John F. Kennedy, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Jawaharlal Nehru, in a photo from Galbraith’s book, ‘‘Ambassador’s Journal: A Personal Account of the Kennedy Years.’’. Pix from here.

This observation coming from a widely renowned Harvard-based economist of the 1950s (he was, in the 1960s, mostly busy with ambassadorial duties for the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations) must surely warrant a pause by the Malaysian education policy-makers to re-visit the Razak Report to understand and imbibe its original intent.

After all, given their vintage, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister merangkap Minister of Education were successful products of the Razak Report.

To put it in a non-gender specific and, purely educational policy context, surely what's good for the (leadership) goose must be good for the (rakyat) gander.

Shoe fetish: Dr M's exasperating opportunism

I found the Kaki Dalam Kasut post by Dr M very exasperating.

This is one example of his ability to titillate the basal instincts of his target audience.

Dr M is definitely not a racist. But, I do think he's too Machiavellian. Using his considerable intellect to tweak at the teats of ethnic sentiment is low.

He could have used his intellect for a positive view of things. But, the canny politician probably found that pandering to the ethnic gallery was a good idea to sustain his popularity. Spinning an innocuous question on political freedom and equality to a reply with a heavy ethnic flavour and a distorted socio-economic picture is irresponsible.

It's a waste of time to examine the definition of "master". What is economic "mastery" without political "mastery" when the latter allows the political master to misallocate the tax revenue collected from the economic players? Even this is an irrelevant issue.

As PM why did he permit non-Malay tycoons to get massive privatisation projects? Why didn't he as PM impose a "social tax" on these people so that some funds flow to the ethnic group that he now pretends to sympathise with?

On days when I'm very tired from the pressure of work, I dream of receiving handouts.

But, rather than rely on ethnicity as a crutch to prop up my superficial arguments, I would just say that during those difficult moments in working life, I dream of being an UMNOputra, an MCAputra or an MICputra. It's easy. Just play politics and get rent-seeking contracts.

The UMNOputra, an MCAputra or an MICputra are the Malaysians who should try and imagine how it feels being in the shoes (or, more appropriately, slippers) of average Malaysians, regardless of race. We are the ones who have to work hard and honestly everyday.

We are the lembu while the sapi is owned by Dr M and his former political subordinates.

That is why I found his post so exasperating.

And, perhaps this is why the whole of Malaysia has been waiting for 52 years (and counting) for the other shoe to drop in the context of this incessant and obsessive fixation on ethnicity by politicians of all colour, creed and credo. from here.

By the way, for those with a shoe fetish, get the footwear idioms here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

PAGE: Parent Action Group for Education

I must congratulate the concerned parents who are very disappointed with the reversal of PPSMI for having formed PAGE.

Please visit the PAGE Blog and actively participate in the process of persuading the Government to reconsider the PPSMI or, accept a compromise version.

Parents must be given a choice in the matter.

Many of us believe that our children will have a definite advantage if they are taught Maths and Science in the English language. We and, our children, should be given a choice.

Ong Tee Keat vs The Malaysian Polyarchy-Corporatists

There is a need to consider Ong Tee Keat's reported lament that there were some forces collaborating in an attempt to stop him from disclosing PricewaterhouseCoopers' audit report on the PKFZ.

Ong is further quoted as saying that "The steps they take include threats on my personal safety as well as applying internal pressure in an attempt to stop me from disclosing the content of the report". It is further reported that, He (Ong) even said someone had delivered him a message through some "secret society brothers" saying, "If you're wiped out from this world some day, you should know why this has happened!".

Such a statement coming from a Cabinet Minister, a President of MCA, the second-largest component party of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, should raise alarm bells at the highest levels of government. One of their own, a member of the elite, is under siege.

One immediate question that springs to mind is whether Ong lodged a police report? And, if not, why not?

While waiting for further reactions from the besieged Ong, it is apposite to consider the bigger picture of what Ong has described.

The Malaysian Polyarchy-Corporatists
Professor Robert A. Dahl of Yale University coined the word polyarchy to describe a form of government where power is vested in a select few. from here.
Dahl's colleague Charles Lindblom embellished the definition to include the view that no single, monolithic elite controls government and society, but rather a series of specialized elites compete and bargain with one another for control. It is this peaceful competition and compromise between elites in politics and the marketplace that drives free-market democracy and allows it to thrive.

However, Lindblom soon began to see the shortcomings of Polyarchy with regards to democratic governance. When certain groups of elites gain crucial advantages, become too successful and begin to collude with one another instead of compete, Polyarchy can easily turn into Corporatism which is a term used to describe a practice whereby a state, through the process of licensing and regulating officially-incorporated social, religious, economic, or popular organizations, effectively co-opts their leadership or circumscribes their ability to challenge state authority by establishing the state as the source of their legitimacy, as well as sometimes running them, either directly or indirectly through corporations. from here.

This phenomenon is apparent in every country. It is difficult to articulate. But, in the Malaysian context, the several books by Bruce Gale and KS Jomo under many different titles will lend a good illustration of polyarchical and corporatist conduct in Malaysia Inc.

A sinister turn
What Ong has described suggests that the elite in Malaysia has a very sinister side that has chosen to manifest itself in the PKFZ episode.

Many will shrug their shoulders and say, "So, what else is new?" or, "That's stating the obvious". And, they would be correct.

But, that should not trivialise the fact that here we have Ong Tee Keat, Cabinet Minister and President of MCA, the second-largest component party within the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition stating baldly that he is being threatened by people who want the PKFZ matter hushed up.

So, in addition to the question that I have posed earlier about whether or, not, Ong has lodged a police report on the threats that he has received, we should also ask whether UMNO, MCA and the entire Barisan Nasional apparatus are prepared to put up with threats made to their leaders?

If the answer is "No!", then, will any concerted action be taken by the law enforcement agencies to bring the perpetrators to book on the criminal offence of threatening a person with the words, "If you're wiped out from this world some day, you should know why this has happened!".

Certainly, this disclosure by Ong points further to the very embedded rot that has set into the stratosphere of the Malaysian elite.

It is an indictment of 52 years of dominance by a ruling coalition that Ong and the MCA is so much a part of.


Speaking of "secret society brothers", Sim Kwang Yang has just written another interesting piece in Malaysiakini on the phenomenon of the Malaysian underworld. His impulse was derived from YB Wee Choo Keong's allegation that certain gang members had special access to the office of a certain state executive councillor in Selangor.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Thriving Norway Provides an Economics Lesson

The matter of Norway's approach to managing its oil wealth is worth re-visiting. I have made 3 previous posts on this matter here. In it's 13th May article by Landon Thomas Jr., The New York Times featured Norway's economic management.

My continuing fascination with Norway stems from their having been able to manage their oil wealth in a meaningful and socio-economically fair and egalitarian manner. They have managed to avert the temptation of abusing this wealth for short-term gain such as instituting consumption subsidies. Instead, Norway has socio-economic programmes such as free education up to tertiary levels. Public amenities are properly run. It's oil wealth is placed into a sovereign wealth fund. Okay, enough editorialising. Read on.

Espen Rasmussen for The New York Times
The promenade for the new opera house in Oslo, which is transforming a seaside area into a business and residential community.

When capitalism seemed on the verge of collapse last fall, Kristin Halvorsen, Norway’s Socialist finance minister and a longtime free market skeptic, did more than crow.

As investors the world over sold in a panic, she bucked the tide, authorizing Norway’s $300 billion sovereign wealth fund to ramp up its stock buying program by $60 billion — or about 23 percent of Norway ’s economic output.

“The timing was not that bad,” Ms. Halvorsen said, smiling with satisfaction over the broad worldwide market rally that began in early March.

Sea of PlentyGraphic

Sea of Plenty

The global financial crisis has brought low the economies of just about every country on earth. But not Norway.

With a quirky contrariness as deeply etched in the national character as the fjords carved into its rugged landscape, Norway has thrived by going its own way. When others splurged, it saved. When others sought to limit the role of government, Norway strengthened its cradle-to-grave welfare state.

And in the midst of the worst global downturn since the Depression, Norway’s economy grew last year by just under 3 percent. The government enjoys a budget surplus of 11 percent.

By comparison, the United States is expected to chalk up a fiscal deficit this year equal to 12.9 percent of its gross domestic product and push its total debt to $11 trillion, or 65 percent of the size of its economy.

Norway is a relatively small country with a largely homogeneous population of 4.6 million and the advantages of being a major oil exporter. It counted $68 billion in oil revenue last year as prices soared to record levels. Even though prices have sharply declined, the government is not particularly worried. That is because Norway avoided the usual trap that plagues many energy-rich countries.

Instead of spending its riches lavishly, it passed legislation ensuring that oil revenue went straight into its sovereign wealth fund, state money that is used to make investments around the world. Now its sovereign wealth fund is close to being the largest in the world, despite losing 23 percent last year because of investments that declined.

Norway’s relative frugality stands in stark contrast to Britain, which spent most of its North Sea oil revenue — and more — during the boom years. Government spending rose to 47 percent of G.D.P., from 42 percent in 2003. By comparison, public spending in Norway fell to 40 percent from 48 percent of G.D.P.

“The U.S. and the U.K. have no sense of guilt,” said Anders Aslund, an expert on Scandinavia at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “But in Norway, there is instead a sense of virtue. If you are given a lot, you have a responsibility.”

Eirik Wekre, an economist who writes thrillers in his spare time, describes Norwegians’ feelings about debt this way: “We cannot spend this money now; it would be stealing from future generations.”

Mr. Wekre, who paid for his house and car with cash, attributes this broad consensus to as the country’s iconoclasm. “The strongest man is he who stands alone in the world,” he said, quoting Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.

Still, even Ibsen might concede that it is easier to stand alone when your nation has benefited from oil reserves that make it the third-largest exporter in the world. The money flowing from that black gold since the early 1970s has prompted even the flintiest of Norwegians to relax and enjoy their good fortune. The country’s G.D.P. per person is $52,000, behind only Luxembourg among industrial democracies.

As in much of the rest of the world home prices have soared here, tripling this decade. But there has been no real estate crash in Norway because there were few mortgage lending excesses. After a 15 percent correction, prices are again on the rise.

Unlike Dublin or Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where work has stopped on half-built skyscrapers and stilled cranes dot the skylines, Oslo retains a feeling of modesty reminiscent of a fishing village rather than a Western capital, with the recently opened $800 million Opera House one of the few signs of opulence.

Norwegian banks, said Arne J. Isachsen, an economist at the Norwegian School of Management, remain largely healthy and prudent in their lending. Banks represent just 2 percent of the economy and tight public oversight over their lending practices have kept Norwegian banks from taking on the risk that brought down their Icelandic counterparts. But they certainly have not closed their doors to borrowers. Mr. Isachsen, like many in Norway, has a second home and an open credit line from his bank, which he recently used to buy a new boat.

Some here worry that while a cabin in the woods and a boat may not approach the excesses seen in New York or London, oil wealth and the state largesse have corrupted Norway’s once-sturdy work ethic.

“This is an oil-for-leisure program,” said Knut Anton Mork, an economist at Handelsbanken in Oslo. A recent study, he pointed out, found that Norwegians work the fewest hours of the citizens of any industrial democracy.

“We have become complacent,” Mr. Mork added. “More and more vacation houses are being built. We have more holidays than most countries and extremely generous benefits and sick leave policies. Some day the dream will end.”

But that day is far off. For now, the air is clear, work is plentiful and the government’s helping hand is omnipresent — even for those on the margins.

Just around the corner from Norway’s central bank, for instance, Paul Bruum takes a needle full of amphetamines and jabs it into his muscular arm. His scabs and sores betray many years as a heroin addict. He says that the $1,500 he gets from the government each month is enough to keep him well-fed and supplied with drugs.

Mr. Bruum, 32, says he has never had a job, and he admits he is no position to find one. “I don’t blame anyone,” he said. “The Norwegian government has provided for me the best they can.”

To Ms. Halvorsen, the finance minister, even the underside of the Norwegian dream looks pretty good compared to the economic nightmares elsewhere.

“As a socialist, I have always said that the market can’t regulate itself,” she said. “But even I was surprised how strong the failure was.”

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Solar Stocks Eclipsed: Any impact on SunPower's BILLION RINGGIT M'sian project?

Forbes has reported that:

The solar power industry may be about to deliver investors some bad news. Analysts at two big banks say leading solar companies may miss expectations when they announce profits and could lower their forecasts for the rest of the year. Leading to the disappointment are rapidly falling prices for photovoltaic systems amid fierce competition for customers during the recession as well as scarce financing for new projects.

The Forbes report goes on to state:

SunPower ( SPWR - news - people ) illustrates the industry's woes. The San Jose, Calif. firm can afford to charge more than competitors because its solar cells produce more electricity from the same amount of sunlight than rivals'. Nevertheless, SunPower's prices fell 10% in the first three months of the year and sales dropped 50%. Both declines are smaller than the industry's as a whole, notes O'Rourke, who rates the company a "Hold." He thinks the firm could lower its 2009 forecast.

Analyst Timothy Arcuri of Citigroup isn't as optimistic. He rates SunPower a "Sell" in a recent report, explaining that falling prices will likely whittle away the premium prices the firm currently charges customers. If this bearish thesis is correct, it could spell bad news and downward revisions for First Solar ( FSLR - news - people ), Evergreen Solar ( ESLR - news - people ) and Suntech Power Holdings ( STP - news - people ) as well.

On 26th December 2008, I made a post on a report by Bloomberg that SunPower Corp. had announced that it could borrow as much as USD288 million (ONE BILLION RINGGIT) from the Malaysian government to fund a solar-panel project in the southeast Asian country. The San Jose, California-based company is said to have plans to use the funds to build a factory in Malaysia to produce more than 1,000 megawatts a year of the panel components, the company said in a statement. The unit, the company’s third in Malaysia, may start output in 2010:

To be clear, SunPower's solar products are regarded as top-notch compared to its competitors because its solar cells produce more electricity from the same amount of sunlight than rivals'.

Nevertheless, SunPower's prices fell 10% in the first three months of the year and sales dropped 50%. Both declines are smaller than the industry's as a whole, notes Steve O'Rourke, of Deutsche Bank who rates the company a "Hold." He thinks the firm could lower its 2009 forecast.

Forbes concludes thus:

One possible bright spot for the industry is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed into law in February. The bill includes grants for renewable energy projects, including solar, and reimburses buyers for 30% of their total cost. Last week the government announced guidelines for applications and reimbursements could go out later this year. The Energy Department estimates it will disburse perhaps $3 billion of such grants, boosting investment by $10 billion to $14 billion, notes O'Rourke. Citigroup ( C - news - people )'s Timothy Arcuri, however, cites "widespread skepticism" that the program will bring new investors.

This brings me to the question of how Malaysia's economic managers and planners conduct their feasibility studies when evaluating which FDIs are deserving of "soft" loans to the tune of RM1,000,000,000-00 and, which ones do not.

I also wonder how much of the "soft" loan has been disbursed to date.

And, I wonder how the SunPower project in Malaysia will pan out in the coming years.

Can anyone enlighten me and the rest of the taxpaying Malaysians?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Pax Sinica

Martin Jacques had the worst experience anyone could have had. He had to undergo the terrible experience of the death of his Indian-Malaysian wife, Harinder Veriah, in a Hong Kong hospital. He claimed that the tragedy arose from a deep Chinese prejudice against anyone with a dark skin.

The Harinder Veriah Trust that was created after her untimely passing has also benefitted young Malaysian lawyers who successfully apply for a short work experience stint in a law firm in the City of London.

In spite of personal tragedy and the bitterness of the perceived racism, Jacques has just published a seminal book that contains real gems of insight into the matter of Pax Sinica. The book is aptly titled, When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World.

When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World .

I will let Michael Rank's review in the Guardian take you on an excursus of Jacques's book. As ever, I have emphasised in bold what I believe to be pertinent tracts of the review:

Jacques claims that "In an important sense, China does not aspire to run the world because it already believes itself to be the centre of the world, this being its natural role and position", and discusses sensitively and in depth what it means to be the "middle kingdom". He also argues that China is essentially a "civilisation state" rather than a western-style nation state. "The term civilisation normally suggests a rather distant and indirect influence and an inert and passive presence," he notes. "In China's case, however, it is not only history that lives but civilisation itself: the notion of a living civilisation provides the primary identity and context by which the Chinese think of their country and define themselves."

One of the fundamental features of Chinese politics is the overriding emphasis placed on the country's unity, Jacques claims. This occasionally leads to contradictions which he does not entirely resolve, for he also stresses China's diversity, going so far as to claim that "China's provinces are far more differentiated than Europe's nation-states, even when eastern Europe and the Balkans are included". The question of unity and diversity leads to a stimulating comparison of China and India, a far more pluralistic - and democratic - nation, and Jacques notes how the enormous cultural differences between the world's two most populous countries have resulted in "an underlying lack of understanding and empathy".

The book is based on a well-informed and subtle analysis of Chinese history and culture, and as the title implies, Jacques is convinced that it is not a matter of whether China will dominate the world over the next few decades, but how. He is careful to avoid over-confidence in his predictions, however, and notes that "China's present behaviour can only be regarded as a partial indicator, simply because its power and influence remain limited compared with what they are likely to be in the future". But he is surely right to say that American confidence that "the Chinese are inevitably becoming more like us" is misplaced and is based on a view of globalisation that is seriously flawed.

Jacques is likely to raise eyebrows in some quarters by playing down China's military potential; he sees China's arms buildup as being aimed largely at blocking any possible Taiwanese moves towards independence rather than at achieving world domination, and he claims that its own technological level remains relatively low. In the face of US and EU bans on selling weapons to Beijing, its only potential foreign supplier is Russia, Jacques says, and Moscow is hardly eager to see a militarily powerful China.

But it is China's fast-growing economic power which has the world transfixed right now, and Jacques is confident that this will grow further. In the long term he expects China "to operate both within and outside the existing international system, seeking to transform that system while at the same time, in effect, sponsoring a new China-centric international system which will exist alongside the present system and probably slowly begin to usurp it".

In perhaps his most provocative remarks, Jacques praises China's communist leaders for their "remarkable perspicacity ... never allowing themselves to be distracted by short-term considerations". He appears to defend the party's failure to move towards democracy, stating that China has devoted itself to economic growth, having concluded that it cannot afford to be diverted by what it "rightly deemed to be non-essential ends".

Jacques observes, as commentators such as Jonathan Fenby have also noted, how the party has confounded western assumptions that the consumer boom over the last 20 years, the internet and the flood of Chinese travelling abroad on business or for pleasure would inevitably result in moves towards western-style democracy. He is not perturbed by this and is indeed sympathetic to the "not misplaced view that any move towards democracy is likely to embroil the country in considerable chaos and turmoil".

It is on race, not unexpectedly, that Jacques is most critical of China. He says "racialised ways of thought ... have been on the rise in both popular culture and official circles", and he expects this to continue, with China's "sense of superiority resting on a combination of cultural and racial hubris".

Some flaws are inevitable in such a lengthy and wide-ranging book. Jacques's discussion of Japanese culture is cliché-laden (the Japanese are "exquisitely polite", "You will never seen any litter anywhere" and the country is virtually crime-free) and it is surprising that his discussion of China's historical scientific and technological achievements makes no mention of Joseph Needham's towering contributions to the field. There are also occasional factual mistakes: Japan annexed north-east, not north-west China in 1931, and Shanghainese is not a dialect of Mandarin. In addition, the author occasionally cites dubious statistics: for example, I find it impossible to believe that 100 million Chinese tourists will visit Africa annually in the near future.

Despite such foibles, this is an extremely impressive book, full of bold but credible predictions. Only time will tell how Jacques's prophecies pan out, but I suspect his book will long be remembered for its foresight and insight.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Ku Li says New Deal needed

When Tengku Razaleigh speaks, he does so with such clarity and candour that our self-imposed blinkered psyche may find it difficult to process his words. But we must persist so that we can imbibe the wisdom and insight of Tun Abdul Razak's "chosen one". We need to do so in order that we understand what it means to be a proud and forward-looking Malaysian. By so doing we may yet avert the downward spiralling decline of our beloved country.

Here is an extract of a report on Tengku Razaleigh's speech in a private function tonight:

Tengku Razaleigh said that Malaysians should start trusting “less in personalities and more in policies.”

Look less to politics and more to principles, less to rhetoric and more to tangible outcomes, less to the government of the day and more to enduring institutions,” he said.

In his speech, the former finance minister also spoke at length about the country’s affirmative action policies, the NEP and how he felt embarrassed that after 50 years of independence, “we are still talking about bringing Malaysians together.”

Curiously, although the policy was formulated … for a finite period, in our political consciousness it has grown into an all encompassing and permanent framework that defines who we are.

The NEP ended in 1991 when it was terminated and replaced by the New Development Policy, but eighteen years on, we are still in its hangover and speak confusingly about liberalising it.”

He said that it was a crushing indictment of the mediocrity of leadership that the NEP is considered sacrosanct and that departures from it are big strides.

The NEP is over and we have not had the courage to tell people this.”

In a veiled attack against his own party, Tengku Razaleigh pointed out that the NEP had been systematically appropriated by a small political and business class to enrich itself and perpetuate power.

We must break the stranglehold of communal politics and racial policy if we want to be a place where an economy driven by ideas and skills can flourish.

We can do much better than cling to the bright ideas of 40 years ago as if they were dogma, and forget our duty to come up with the bright ideas for our own time.

We need a Malaysian New Deal based on the same universal concerns on which the NEP was originally formulated, but designed for a new era.”

The Umno veteran also called for a fair and equitable political and economic order, founded on equal citizenship which he said was the only possible basis for a united Malaysia and a talent-driven economy.

You can read his entire speech here.

Read also The Edge Daily's op-ed piece, First, the straight talk, here.

Happy 84th Birthday, Tun

Happy 84th Birthday, Tun!
Pix from here

Nine "experts" join economic advisory council

It is reported that nine "experts" have been appointed to the Economic Advisory Council which is chaired by Tan Sri Amirsham Abdul Aziz.

They are:

  • Universiti Sains Malaysia vice-chancellor Prof Tan Sri Dzulkifli Abdul Razak,
  • Economic council member and former Bank Negara chief economist Datuk Andrew Sheng,
  • Economic council member and former World Bank consultant Datuk Dr Zainal Aznam Mohd Yusof,
  • National Implementation Task Force adviser Datuk Dr Hamzah Kassim,
  • Corporate adviser Datuk Nicholas S. Zefferys,
  • Institute of Strategic and International Studies director-general Dr Mahani Zainal Abidin,
  • World Bank and Asian Development Bank senior adviser Dr Yukon Huang,
  • World Bank east asian regional chief economist Dr Homi J. Kharas, and
  • London School of Economics economics department head Prof Dr Danny Quah.

Universiti Malaya economics dean Prof Dr Norma Mansor has also been appointed as the council’s secretary-general.

I'm certain that these people would not have the gumption or gall to call themselves "experts". given the strange and uncharted territory that economies all over have descended into involving scenarios that have sorely tested conventional Keynesian-type wisdom. and, is likely to force major re-drafting of economics textbooks in years to come. No, that moniker was given by the Press.

Were it otherwise, I would have been compelled to recall the definition of "expert" that was given by an academic in Australia some years ago to the effect that "ex" meant something past while "spurt" had a phonetical connotation of liquefied matter, organic or otherwise, ejaculating from a spout or like cavity.

Well, it's a Friday and I must be forgiven for being a trite digressive and mildly naughty.

After all, the leader of the land has just been graded by a former leader of the land with the remark that "So far, the negatives are more than the positives".

Thursday, July 9, 2009

SRJK (I) and SMJK (I)

I understand that there may be quite a lot of parents who would be deliriously overjoyed if the Government will convert designated primary schools into Sekolah Rendah Jenis Kebangsaan (Inggeris) ("SRJK (I)")and, designated secondary schools into Sekolah Menengah Jenis Kebangsaan (Inggeris) ("SMJK (I)").

This is only fair.

After all, the Mandarin-speaking fellows have their SRJK (C) and SMJK (C) and the Tamil-speaking fellows have their SRJK (T).

And, the Bahasa Malaysia-speaking fellows will soon have their SK and SMK in the appropriate language of instruction.

Some of us may not want to send our children to SK, SRJK (C), SRJK (T), SMK or, SMJK (C). But, we may wish to send our children to SRJK (I) and SMJK (I).

Can or not?

If you are against the decision to revert from the PPSMI please register your vote at Dr M's Blog. I've registered my vote.

Read also the op-ed of Malaysia's foremost business paper on the negative impact of the reversion policy.

"Somnambulists walking backwards"

I wrote this piece in 2002 for Asia Inc magazine. The original title was Avoiding the Babel trap in Malaysia Inc. This piece was written at the cusp of a major policy shift by Dr M, who was Prime Minister of Malaysia at the time. The policy shift involved the introduction of the English language as a medium of instruction for Maths and Science.

It was posted earlier here. This is an appropriate time to dust it off and re-post.

It was late afternoon as I sat opposite my friend in his comfortable office in Tower 2 of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. I faced the glass window panels behind him and took in the incongruity of the few surviving old colonial bungalows resting in the shade of the tall office buildings that typified Malaysia’s corporate ambition. I listened pensively to his lament about the state of the English language in Malaysia. This 50-year old Malay Muslim CEO of a statutory body should know. “When I started my career in the 1970s, the secretaries still took dictation from their bosses. They were even able to correct the grammatical errors that crop up in dictation”, he said. “Nowadays, I’m better off whacking words into a PC and have the secretary confined to formatting and printing the finished product. I don’t need the stress of correcting letters”, he added.

My CEO friend’s predicament is not unique. Corporate law firms that make a living from putting together strings of words designed to capture the true intent of business partners are also under threat from poor English. “The wit who coined the silly expression ‘Manglish’ cannot have meant ‘Malaysian English’. It should mean ‘mangled English’”, says a senior corporate lawyer. “The worst part of this is that the work load does not decrease with new recruits. It increases because you just can’t rely on drafts from the juniors. More often than not I end up having to draft the whole thing from scratch again”, he moaned.

Increasingly, accounting and law firms create at least two, if not four, levels of vetting of documents. To be fair, this procedure is part of the risk management strategies deployed in the wake of the 1997 economic crisis and, more recently, the pall drawn by the Enron and Worldcom affairs. But poor English has also begat this truncated and annoying procedure. To project a good professional and corporate image with letters, documents and, even websites Manglish is a definite negative.

As Malaysia ups the ante on the logistics front with KLIA pitted against Changi Airport and Chek Lap Kok Airport, and the Tanjong Pelepas Port and West Port against the world-class harbours of Singapore, the real battle may well be on the language front where projects designed to enhance Malaysia’s international competitiveness such as the Multimedia Super Corridor in Kuala Lumpur is being stymied by a supply local knowledge workers weak in English. In contrast, the boon to knowledge workers in the Indian city of Bangalore to augment the Silicon Valley’s global IT reach is largely due to their English proficiency.

The experience of using English in Europe is instructive. Airbus Industrie, an amalgamation of several European countries in civil aviation, had recognized English as a vital medium some thirty years ago when it made English its official corporate language. At its base in Toulouse, south of Anglophobic France, one is struck by the anomalous appearance of a Belgian engineer exchanging technical ideas with a French electrician in English. Meetings at increasingly multi-national and transnational corporations such as Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse are conducted in English. It is also not unusual to find a largely domestic establishment such as Deutsche Post World Net, the German national post service, using English as its working language. The main reason offered by the Europeans is simple; the United States is the leading global economic powerhouse in commerce, industry and finance. Since Americans use English, so should the Europeans, to maintain competitiveness.

Detractors in Asia usually point to Japan and South Korea as examples of societies that were able to attain economic modernization and corporate competitiveness without sacrificing their vernacular. They also point to the poor economic record of English-speaking countries in Africa that were former British colonies. But, that is simplistic rhetoric. The reality is that Japan began its economic modernization at the turn of the 20th century. They have had a 100-year head start over the rest of Asia. South Korea embraced industrialization in the 1950s with American capital being poured in ideological support for it’s being a frontline state against communism. They have a 50-year head start. In any event, to globalize homegrown brands such as Sony, Panasonic and, more recently, Samsung, the Japanese and South Korean corporations are recruiting graduates proficient in English. Global marketing may require a clear understanding of cultural differences. But amidst this diversity in global markets is the recognition of many countries that English is the dominant business language.

Malaysia rightly fears being put in the ignominous position of having had a strong English-speaking population that has significantly declined. And, with this trend, may go its regional competitive advantage. This concern is the most likely explanation for the recent government policy reversal to convert the teaching medium for the technical subjects of mathematics and science from Malay to English. Another reason may be the recognition that the Malay community is increasingly hamstrung by its restricted proficiency in the Malay language, with Arabic being their second language. In contrast, Chinese and Indian communities are generally multi-lingual. Furthermore, given the insularity of Muslim societies since the beginning of the decline of the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the twentieth century, proficiency in Malay and Arabic may not offer the Malay community the proper paradigm of values to acquire the technical and commercial skills necessary for international economic competitiveness.

Statistically, Malaysia’s superlative economic and international trade record stands proudly above other countries with dominant Muslim populations. But this is irrelevant to Malaysia since it has to compete for international investment within the Asean and East Asian region. “There is no point in being the jaguh kampung [village champion] when we have to compete for foreign direct investment against the likes of Singapore and Thailand, not to mention China”, says an investment analyst in a KL-based broking house.

The issue is not so much that the Malay language or other vernaculars are inadequate. Certainly Japan and South Korea has debunked that myth. The more pertinent concern may be that business cycles have shortened tremendously over the past two decades. The experience of the U.S. automakers in the 1980s illuminates this phenomenon very well. They were jarred awake to the strong competition offered by the Japanese automakers. While their studies revealed that productivity lag and fuel efficiency were important factors, an adjunct to that was the car model changes that the Japanese automakers made. The Japanese were implementing car model changes in two-year cycles when the U.S. norm at the time was four-year cycles.

Such a moral may not be lost on Malaysian policy makers who must have realized that if Malaysia is to offer an efficient manufacturing base for multi-national manufacturing industries English as the medium of communication is necessary. The shorter product life cycles require manufacturing concerns to re-tool and change production lines rapidly. This, in turn, requires retraining of the workforce. It is in this respect that English language proficiency may become a key factor in reducing wastage and turnaround time. In the critical path that manufacturers take to change products, longer training time due to language translation and, the real threat of miscommunication, may make or break finely tuned financial and production plans.

For Malaysia, the re-introduction of English as a teaching medium is not a whim as detractors have sought to portray this policy shift. It is, instead, seen as a key competitive factor in an era of globalization. In the 70s and the 80s, many old colonial buildings in Kuala Lumpur were demolished to make way for the tall corporate spires. In the new millennium, the surviving colonial buildings are being preserved as heritage sites. In a similar vein, the political will that relegated English in a fit of nationalistic hubris has been transformed into the corporate will of Malaysia Inc to restore English proficiency to avert the decline of competitive advantage. Given these realities, opponents of the policy on English instruction in Malaysian schools may, in the colourful words of Franklin Roosevelt, be “somnambulists walking backwards”.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Reversal of policy on teaching Maths and Science in English

The policy reversal on the teaching of Maths and Science in the English language is now confirmed. This decision of the Cabinet is troubling.

It's not so much about my having one child that will be affected (She thanked me for the offer of going to a private school but said that she should be able to cope. I told her it's an open offer that she can accept at any time).

Rather, it's about the continued decline of Malaysia's economic competitiveness. The defense of saying that the Japanese and South Koreans were at all times okay with their indigent languages rings hollow. Malaysia is NOT Japan or South Korea. It never will be. I'm too tired to categorically explain why we aren't and, shall never be.

And, whatever the attempted spins, it IS a politically-motivated decision that panders to language chauvinists within the Malay and Chinese communities in Malaysia. The aphorism that politics makes strange bedfellows rings very true in this matter. And, now that they have won their war, let us watch them resume their ugly communal battle.

Will this policy reversal benefit UMNO? Will it win votes in the 13th General Elections?

If by allowing the Malay community, especially in the rural areas, to crawl back under the tempurung is a plus point, then there will be sympathy votes. But, if it is to raise the skills of the Malay community to the point where it meets the new economy of higher income jobs, then, the answer will be moot for at least another decade.

Will this policy reversal benefit the MCA? Will it propel Wee Ka Siong to party leadership? Will it win the MCA more seats?

The Chinese educationists can now rest easy in the thought that their student community will not have the heavy load of studying Maths and Science twice - once in English and once in Mandarin. They can also harbour the delusion that their student community will now be assured of riding the Chinese and Taiwanese gravy train of economic progress. This is delusional because given the exponential growth in skills within China and, given the taut competitive environment within Taiwan, it will take a highly exceptional Chinese Malaysian to succeed there.

The jury will be out on these political questions until the 13th General Elections. And, even then, will the policy reversal be a plus point for the MCA? Or, will issues such as PKFZ impair the MCA even more than the salutary effect of the policy reversal?

This is not a happy day.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Key to Innovation in India: Co-Location

I thought this piece was interesting for the factors highlighted on the elements needed in the crucible for innovation in India. Are such elements applicable to Malaysia in the context of our aspiration to create condtions for innovation? The emboldened emphasis added are mine.

Of all the scientific challenges facing the world today, none are as critical to humanity's future as energy, water, and agriculture. While area-specific research is underway worldwide to find cost-efficient solutions, most of the R&D is conducted within silos that, according to the initial research design, do not allow for interdisciplinary interaction.

Viewing these three critical areas as independent, however, overlooks their inherent interdependence.

  • First, as the search for efficient and sustainable energy resources grows, hydroelectric power will reign supreme.

  • Second, more countries will need to invest in seawater desalination, an extremely power-hungry process, in order to provide water to growing populations.

  • Third, the resultant energy and clean water will be deployed largely to agricultural processes to provide basic sustenance.

Given the connection between these forces, it is critical that tomorrow's innovation projects be designed in ways that allow for co-location. Innovation strategies built around the principle of co-location — where interdisciplinary research programs are conducted in physical proximity to one another, in order to leverage this closeness — provide firms with a chance to mitigate escalating R&D costs, but also require more detailed planning. In today's world, perhaps no other country offers global firms and governments the best chance at this interdependent and co-located research design than India.

India offers global firms, academics, and governments the ideal laboratory within which to conduct R&D in energy, water, and agriculture, boasting the following characteristics:

  1. Natural Resources: With 4,600 miles of peninsular coastline, plus a variety of other renewable energy sources, India presents researchers with an unmatched wealth of resources.

  2. Human capital: India's science and engineering schools and universities are rated among the best in the world, an education system whose outputs provide firms and researchers with a technically-skilled, entrepreneurially-driven, English-speaking talent pool.

  3. Vibrant civil society: As a relatively transparent democracy, India has a free media and a large cadre of activists who more often than not surface problems instead of burying them. The tensions which accompany human development do not tend to go unnoticed in India. This transparency provides researchers with a rich ecosystem within which to design inquiries that encourage more human-centric, solutions-based innovations.

  4. Democratic capitalism: While far from perfect, India's democratic, business-friendly government and transparent debt and capital markets safely absorb, protect, and leverage foreign investment, providing global firms with reasonably strong protections and the freedom to allocate money and resources toward scientific discovery and commercialization.

  5. Existing R&D infrastructure: The majority of global research firms today already boast large R&D laboratories in India, either for the development of software, information technology, energy, life sciences, and agriculture. With the R&D infrastructure in place, global firms can ramp up projects with greater speed and not have to carry the start-up costs that traditionally hamper or cripple large-scale scientific inquiries.

India's growing population, geographical footprint, regional diversity, and economic growth amplify the sustainability challenges the nation will face. This blend of factors makes India one of, if not the, ideal place in the world to investigate the myriad problems associated with technical advancement in energy, water, and agriculture. India provides global firms' research divisions, in partnership with Indian universities, with a "one-stop lab space" where cutting-edge experiments can be tested in a climate filled with formidable constraints; if discoveries are unearthed and tested in India, the chances are quite good that these discoveries can be commercialized to the outer world because of their cost structures.

Finally, India possesses an immense, inherent need for solutions itself. If necessity is the mother of invention, paucity is often the impetus for surfacing human necessities. For many years rich countries have had few shortages — with the exception of oil. Poor countries have meanwhile have been too destitute to place serious demands on capacities. Globalization and growth have changed all this — poor countries like India are becoming richer, and rich countries in the West are approaching certain boundaries of sustainability. In these circumstances, many of the problems associated with energy efficiency, water purification, and improved agricultural techniques — all which deserve attention, funding, and innovation — are reaching critical mass in poor countries, and often presage issues that will be faced by richer countries only a short while later. Global firms, therefore, can capitalize on this historical trend, discover the most cost-efficient innovations in India that leapfrog existing models, and then export them to the rest of the world.


Semil Shah is a Principal at India Strategy Consulting, a boutique services firm that advises small and medium enterprises and global universities on how to approach India strategically. Semil is also a Principal at de Novo Labs, which takes equity positions in clients' start up ventures relating to India. Prior to founding these firms, Semil spent four years as a director of business development and project management for the National Center for Employee Ownership in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he consulted to employee-owned businesses, completed research for the National Bureau of Economic Research, and co-authored a book on nontraditional applications of employee ownership.