Book Review: Learning Democracy ‘The New Arabs,’ by Juan Cole


Sunday Book Review

Learning Democracy
‘The New Arabs,’ by Juan Cole

By Irshad Manji
August 22,2014

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/24/books/review/the-new-arabs-by-juan-cole.html?ref=books

Irshad ManjiIt isn’t easy to track down a positive word about the Middle East these days. Then again, Juan Cole is not your typical observer. A professor of history at the University of Michigan, he is also a prolific and popular blogger on current affairs. An American, he spent part of his childhood in France and Ethiopia.

A left-leaning idealist, he comes across as far more optimistic than the dour Occupy crowd. A cosmopolitan in constant touch with 20-somethings, he seems to be addressing boomers in his latest book, “The New Arabs,” which is replete with explanations that digital natives would never need. (Don’t know what the “meatspace” is? Read on.)

“The New Arabs” chronicles the heart-stirring youth revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Early on, Cole does some defying of his own. “The rise of the Internet,” he notes, “may not have been as central to these social movements as some Western press coverage assumed.”

Juan Cole

To be sure, Cole affirms that online networks dramatically amplified the reach and resonance of protesters’ demands for state accountability. Take the iconic story of Mohamed Bouazizi. Ripped off and slapped by a government employee, the young Tunisian self-immolated in front of his local city hall, igniting the first of the uprisings.

Internet buzz propagated the myth that Bouazizi had graduated from college, making an educated underclass think of him as one of their own and thus take up his cause. In fact, because of poverty, Bouazizi had not even finished high school. Nor was his name Mohamed; it was Tarek. Ah, the baptismal power of social media.

Still, the Internet is only one strand of a much broader web that Cole weaves. His is a huge challenge: to map the outbreaks of tumult that have crisscrossed Tunisia, Egypt and Libya over the past decade. Strikes, bread shortages, lack of water, inflation, unemployment — all on top of a generational thirst for personal autonomy and political liberty. It makes for chaotic reading. Policy wonks get their fill. The rest of us need patience.

Yet Cole does eventually deliver. In a particularly vivid section, he describes the breath­taking pluralism of those who put themselves on the front lines to protect Egyptian demonstrators. Coptic Christian youths served as bodyguards for their Muslim peers. They knew that as Muslims prostrated during Friday prayer — the prelude to pouring into the streets — their bowed heads would invite attack. Soccer thugs found new purpose as bouncers around Tahrir Square. Muslim Brothers, too, shielded secular friends, especially on the day some jobless tour guides rode camels straight into crowds of activists.

The book hits its stride in Libya. Catching revolution fever after Tunisia and Egypt, young Libyans took advantage of the world’s eyeballs. Their online savvy combined with old-fashioned lobbying to secure a no-fly zone above Libya. When one of Qaddafi’s sons shut down Internet access, he was outwitted: Using their cellphones, dissenters called a special number that automatically turned their voice mail messages into tweets.

Ultimately, though, it was rebels in the fields, factories and alleys who kept Qad­dafi and his gang on the run. Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, stopped nothing. Sunset marked an opportunity to refuel with food and arms. Dusk prayers served “as a signal to begin the uprising,” even among those who were secretly fighting to separate mosque and state.

For all of the “liking” and “sharing,” Cole shows that the revolution’s most important triumphs took place in the sphere of physical effort — the “meatspace.” But to what end? Is the Middle East truly transforming?

Tunisia offers a clue. In the wake of the uprisings, “over a hundred new political parties had been founded.” By contrast, the previous regime “allowed only eight.” And those parties will be busy. A “celebrated” Tunisian rapper supports Shariah law. A “prominent intellectual” scorns Shariah as the product of Judaism and therefore a travesty. Above all, a teacher observes, “Now we have to learn democracy.”Unorthodox wisdom for an era in thrall to instant gratification.

Book Review: Ruslan Khalid’s Quest for Architectural Excellence


August 6, 2014

BOOK REVIEW:

Ruslan Khalid’s Quest for Architectural Excellence. A Malaysian Experience

A Review of Ruslan Khalid’s Quest for Architectural Excellence. A Malaysian Experience. Marshall Cavendish, Singapore, 2013. 308 pp. US$35.00; RM44.90.

by Dr. M.Bakri Musa, Morgan-Hill, California

Ruslan Khalid

During World War II, British aviation experts were consumed with analyzing and fixing returning warplanes that had been fired upon, until it was pointed out that those damages were not critical as the planes could still fly. It was counterintuitive but logical; if you want to study critical damages, you examine downed planes.

Last year, the Talent Corporation spent RM65 million on Malaysian professionals abroad to entice them to return. It may be counterintuitive but the money would be better spent on those at home so they would not even consider leaving. If they are happy, the good word would spread, enticing those abroad to return.

Our wise elders counseled us of the trap of kera di hutan di susukan, anak di rumah mati kelaparan. (breastfeeding the monkey in the jungle while letting your child at home starve to death.)

An emigrating family, like Tolstoy’s unhappy family in Anna Karenina, is unique in its own way. Thus instead of studying “big data” on the brain drain, it would be more fruitful to analyze individual cases, not those who emigrate but the ones who return or stay.

One such professional was the late architect Ruslan Khalid. He died in November 2012, only days after final-proofing his autobiography, Quest For Architectural Excellence. The Malaysian Experience.

Product of London’s AA School of Architecture

Ruslan graduated from London’s prestigious Architectural Association (AA) School of Architecture, and had a successful practice in London before returning home late in 1979. Among his clients while there was the Sultan of Pahang.

His final dozen years or so in Malaysia took only about a third of his 308-page book. Those running Talent Corporation would learn more from reading those pages than they would from gallivanting around the world enticing Malaysians to return.

It would also be a lot cheaper, and the book is an enjoyable read, quite apart from being informative. Ruslan wrote well, with elegance and passion. He also immersed himself into the upper crust of British artistic society, and we get a glimpse of that as a bonus.

Ruslan dedicated his book to “all late starters.” Presumably he considered himself one. On the contrary as is evident from the book, he was intelligent, insightful, and very resourceful. Those qualities however, were not recognized early or at all by his native country, nor are they readily assessed on a paper-and-pencil test.

He obtained only (his description) Grade II in his School Certificate Examination in 1952 and a scholarship to a third-rate British architectural school. He recognized that stark reality on his very first day on campus. For an institution to train designers of buildings and structures, the edifice was anything but inspiring. It was like entering a hospital or medical school where the foyer was dirty and ambience unhygienic; you have to be desperate to have any trust or confidence.

It reflected the foresight of his colonial interviewers that they awarded him a scholarship despite his Grade II; they saw his potential. After all he entered English school only two years earlier having previously attended only Malay and religious schools. It also reflected the wisdom of his teachers then that he had to take English classes at his Islamic school. Where are those educators today?

On his voyage to England he bunked with three top-scorer students. By the time they reached Bombay, he had already befriended a certain lady from the First Class deck while the other three were content jabbering among themselves. As luck would have it, she was the wife of a famous architect besides being one herself.

With uninspiring lecturers in a third-rate institution, Ruslan flunked his second year. Undeterred and confident of his talent, he pursued his craft through the old apprentice system. His portfolio, together with his contacts with many well-known architects, later paved his way into AA School as an advanced student on a British scholarship.

All these are interesting preamble. My interest however, is on enticing successful Malaysians to return, or what make them leave. So I will focus on this native son’s travails at home upon his return late in life.

Disappointments At Home

Despite having been a practicing architect for over a decade in London, his application for registration in Malaysia was summarily denied. He did not have the prerequisite two years of local public service. Not wishing to be desk-bound in some ministry, he opted for Universiti Teknoloji Malaysia. After all he had been a senior lecturer in London.

The ending was predictable, and came soon. He left after the minimum two years to pursue private practice, which led him to be editor of his professional association’s journal. He soon discovered that his profession at home was handmaiden for developers and the journal he edited was more advertising channel for the industry rather than advancing the art and science of local architecture.

I can attest to that. In 1977 my wife and I engaged a famous architect in Kuala Lumpur to design ourbakri-musa dream house. We chose him because his name was similar to mine, and with his foreign wife I thought he would appreciate our aspiration. We wanted a wooden house with local fruit trees for landscaping. Imagine our surprise when he answered our every query with, “Yes, we can do that!” without offering alternatives or critiquing our ideas.

Then at a public housing exhibition I encountered the firm of Goh Hock Guan; it had won first prize in that competition with its wooden house design. We chose it, and to our surprise were assigned to a young Malay associate. Surely he had been sent abroad on a government scholarship and thus should be pushing papers in one of those ministries, I thought.

Esa Mohamed too answered all our questions but he also warned us that while he was enthusiastic about our project, our house would have little resale value as it was not mainstream design. We nonetheless proceeded and were enthralled with his creation! Unfortunately by this time I had already decided to leave. We paid his fees and kept the blueprint. Esa went on to have a very successful career.

Thwarted Academic The Second Time

Back to Ruslan, a few years later UPM opened its architectural faculty. Eager to train future architects in his mold, he became its founding dean. Again the quick and predictable ending! Despite being on the Sultan of Pahang’s polo team and Prime Minister Mahathir’s riding companion, quite apart from having a half-brother in the cabinet, (Tan Sri Azmi Khalid) Ruslan was, as he wrote, “relieved of his duties.” Mahathir offered his services to have him reinstated, but bitten twice, he politely declined.

The one incident during his deanship was symptomatic of the country’s malaise and obsession with praises from foreigners. He had fought hard to improve the academic facilities when, unbeknown to Ruslan, the Vice-Chancellor hired a British consultant. As it turned out Ruslan knew him. Consequently the report was full of praise and confidence of the faculty’s future under Ruslan’s leadership. The VC used that as an excuse to deny Ruslan’s request, deeming that the faculty was fine as it was!

Again I can relate to that. As a surgeon in Johor Baru 1978 I fought hard to upgrade the hospital to be worthy of a teaching institution. Then came a British delegation sponsored by the ministry. At the exit conference the British spokesman could hardly restrain himself in praising our facility, egged on by the beaming smiles of local officials.

When he finished I spoke up. I told him that much as I appreciated his generous remarks, he had effectively undercut my efforts. The ministry would now not approve my request seeing that our facility was already doing well. Then to drive home my point, I told everyone that I had never been to a British teaching hospital, but if they were impressed with our facility, then I did not think highly of their standards.

datuk-ruslan-khalidAt the end of the meeting one of the surveyors sought me to apologize. I told him it mattered not as the damage had been done and that he surely would be invited again for the next survey, unless of course he was willing to submit an amended report. These ugly realities would never be uncovered in glitzy official reports or expensive consultants’ surveys; hence the need for personal accounts as with Ruslan Khalid’s In Quest for Architectural Excellence

Ruslan Khalid is now gone, may Allah bless his soul and put him among the righteous. Architect Ruslan bequeathed his extensive portfolios; native son Ruslan, this thoughtful and insightful autobiography. Malaysia would be poorer if it does not heed his wisdom.

BOOK REVIEW: Shankaran Nambiar’s The Malaysian Economy: Rethinking Policies & Purposes


July 30, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Shankaran Nambiar’s new book, The Malaysian Economy: Rethinking Policies & Purposes 

by Tricia Yeoh@ http://www.thesundaily.com.my

FEW writers and analysts are able to both identify precisely the challenges facing the Malaysian economy as well as communicate these in a manner easy to digest. Shankaran Nambiar’s new book, The Malaysian Economy: Rethinking Policies & Purposes does so with bold and relevant commentary. Dating from 2003 to the present, this compilation of writings focuses on six broad themes including the need to strengthen institutions, the importance of competitiveness, regional trade, fiscal reform and finally, the reality that is the influence of elections and politics over economic policy.

?????????????????????What is prevalent throughout the book is the clear economic position he takes, arguing for a more open and free economy, one in which companies and traders would be able to compete without the shackles of a large and interventionist government. He takes cognisance that our neighbours are moving at a rapid pace, and mentions specifically China in its ability to out-compete many in the region, but that Malaysia would need to “develop our human capital and readjust our institutional framework to align it with global requirements.”

Of course, on the economic ideological continuum, criticisms often abound of the far-right leaning liberal position. More specifically, public sentiment in Malaysia has weighed heavily against the free market and privatisation. This is not surprising, since the Malaysian version of “free market” and “privatisation” is anything but. It has been but a muddied example of what a free market could actually do to improve the quality of goods and services.

Nambiar does not shy away from this oftentimes-controversial debate. He states explicitly, “privatisation, in theory, implies giving markets a bigger role … privatised companies have to be efficient … and cannot rely on the government to bail them out.”

Theoretically, yes. But in the execution of it – and Malaysia has done a poor job at this – privatisation has not been done in a fair, competitive way. In fact, what took place in our context is that when public entities were privatised, instead of improving efficiency, things got worse. Again, Nambiar hits it squarely on the head: “What was once a government monopoly now becomes a private monopoly. One form of inefficiency is substituted with another.”

Reading the book, one would initially conclude that he is a hard-hitting liberal – libertarian in American circles – and based on many principles, indeed this is so: his firm belief in competition, economic freedom, strong institutions and a legal framework, property rights and so on.

But what is refreshing to note is that he does not blindly accept what would typically be a liberal’s position, but views all subjects with a critical mind. Instead, he agrees with the need for a minimum wage because based on empirical research, this would transform the economy into one that is technologically advanced and contribute towards high value-added growth. A hardcore liberal economist would usually argue against the minimum wage as it is a false and forced imposition by government, which does put many small and medium companies out of business.

 

Finally, as many things seem to be in Malaysia, economic policy is subject to political influence, and this is evident in the many examples Nambiar provides, such as how the federal government transfers revenue to individual state governments, Najib’s electoral position determining whether or not the goods and services tax is introduced, and other “inappropriate policies” that are introduced “because of the polls”, which is “as if we have an economy balancing on the tip of a pin”, which is dangerously accurate.

Many proposals have been expressed elsewhere, on the need for fiscal reform and discipline, addressing structural issues (income distribution, corruption, crime, education), and so on. But the book’s beauty lies in its concise and deft articulation of problems and solutions. The commentaries are candid, and arguments tight. He also comes across as rational and fact-based, criticising or praising whenever necessary. This neutral, non-partisan position of analysing economic (or any other) conditions in the country is rare and must be valued.

As Malaysia enters into its final year of the 10th Malaysia Plan in 2015, and draws up its next set of policies for what would be the last five-year plan before the year 2020 – the 11th Malaysia Plan (2016 – 2020) – it is certainly worth examining Nambiar’s publication that spans the last decade or so. Where exactly are we going? Will the problems raised in his book 10 years ago start to manifest themselves in the next 10? What happens to an economy that pays little attention to such recommendations, and fails to strengthen its institutions?

Policymakers, politicians, academics and students ought to pick up this slim and thoroughly readable volume to gain a historical perspective of good and bad policy. History may not repeat itself, but its leaders may very well do – so it is up to the electorate like us to know which pressure points to press, well before the alarm bells start ringing.

The Myth of the Strong Leader by Archie Brown – Book Review


July 6, 2014

The Myth of the Strong Leader by Archie Brown – review

by Richard Reeves — The Guardian, Thursday 3 July 2014 10.00 BS

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/03/myth-strong-leader-political-leadership-modern-age-archie-brown-review

 

Attlee and Truman get top marks, but not Thatcher or Blair: this is an excellent argument for the virtues of collegiate leaders

The Myth of the Strong LeaderAmericans love to honour their former presidents: paintings, statues, libraries. Even airports get relabelled. Since 1963, travellers to New York have been touching down at JFK; Washington DC is served by Reagan national airport. There is now a campaign, led by senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, to give Harry Truman his due by renaming DC’s main train station Truman Union station. But the plan is facing an unexpected opponent, from beyond the grave: Truman himself. It turns out that Truman wanted a “living memorial”, rather than bricks and mortar. A scholarship programme in his name was established, helping students on their way to a career in public service. The legislation founding it, drafted in consultation with Truman’s friends and family, states: “The Harry S Truman scholarship program as authorised by this chapter shall be the sole federal memorial to President Harry S Truman.

This will please Archie Brown, for whom Truman is something of a hero. In contrast to self-styled “strong” leaders, seeking to achieve their aims through dominance and diktat, Truman was an instinctively collegiate president, delegating significant authority to his colleagues – especially his two secretaries of state, George Marshall and Dean Acheson. As Brown writes: “It was characteristic of Truman’s style that the most outstanding foreign policy achievement of his presidency is known as the Marshall Plan, not the Truman Plan.”

Brown points out that Truman was brought into the presidency as a result of the death of FDR. He was “a reluctant vice-president of the United States and subsequently a reluctant president”. This is, it seems, a good thing. In his sweeping history and analysis of political leadership, Brown comes close to endorsing Plato’s view that power should only be entrusted to those who do not seek it.

Truman QuoteTruman was modest not only about his own status, but about the powers of the presidency itself. While many US presidents – perhaps most – feel the need to exaggerate their powers, Truman said: “I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to do without my persuading them … That’s all the powers of the president amount to.”

Brown has provided in The Myth of the Strong Leader  two books in one. The first, as indicated by the title, is an opinionated treatise on the idea of political leadership. The second, which takes up the bulk of the book, is a rich description of different varieties of political leadership in diverse cultures. It is hard to imagine a better guide than Brown, who has lived and worked in the UK, US and Russia, and is both an outstanding political scholar and an elegant, witty writer.

First, the polemic. He is out to topple the idea of the “strong leader”, arguing that party leaders matter little to electoral outcomes, and wield limited individual power, except – and often fatally – in foreign policy. Clement Attlee, who became prime minister just three months after Truman became president, gets the nod of approval from Brown. Like Truman, he was a natural delegater, and content to have powerful ministers running their departments – Bevin, Bevan, Cripps, Gaitskell, Wilson. As Bevin’s biographer Alan Bullock (no Attlee acolyte) pointed out: “No politician ever made less effort to project his personality or court popularity.”

Thatcher and BlairNo prizes for guessing the prime ministers who earn lower marks for leadership style: Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. All suffered, according to Brown, from a suboptimal conception of the role of the head of a government: “that of the leader as boss”. And all were ejected at the hand of their own colleagues, rather than the ballot box. But, with the exception of Chamberlain, all also make it into the top 10 of any poll ranking of great 20th-century prime ministers: the “best” leaders, in Brown’s sense, may not be the ones voters are typically electorally attracted to.

Political leaders err when they come to believe too strongly in their own powers and perception: a form of personal exceptionalism that disfigured the premierships of both Thatcher and Blair. Brown records Kenneth Clarke‘s recollection of Thatcher exclaiming: “Why do I have to do everything in this government?” He is particularly strong on identifying foreign policy as a dangerous area for overreaching political leaders. He brackets Blair/Iraq with Eden/Egypt, and painfully teases out, in Blair’s case, the path to war. There is a well-known tendency for prime ministers to tire of domestic politics, or what Max Weber described as the “slow, strong drilling through hard boards”, and turn to foreign adventures instead.

Towards the end of his time in office, Blair started to complain about the delay between “the flash and the bang” in relation to some policy reform. Ministers realised that Blair had picked up military terminology and was applying it to, say, the constitutional status of foundation hospitals. Compared with the complex, sluggish nature of public service reform, foreign policy, and especially military action, becomes seductive. You can bomb Baghdad tomorrow; improving the quality of early-years education will take longer.

Colleagues can seem an inconvenience, even if – perhaps especially if – they are foreign secretary. Contrast Robin Cook‘s treatment at Blair’s hands with Denis Healey’s response to Harold Wilson‘s desire to assist the Americans in Vietnam: “Absolutely not!” (Or at least, that’s how Healey records it.)

In the second half of the book, Brown provides a four-fold typology of political leadership styles: redefining, transformational, revolutionary and totalitarian. For each, a comprehensive global history is provided, complete with biographical sketches of every important political leader in the last century. On almost every page Brown offers us a historical tidbit or anecdote. (I did not know, for instance, that Goebbels presented Hitler with a German translation of Thomas Carlyle’s biography of Frederick the Great.)

What he calls “redefining” leaders are those who change politics, and in particular by changing “people’s thinking on what is feasible and desirable”, he writes. They “redefine what is the political centre, rather than simply … placing themselves squarely within it”. Attlee and Thatcher were redefining leaders, Macmillan and Blair were not: “Blair accepted the new centre-ground of British politics that Thatcher and like-minded colleagues had helped to create.”

Paris_Charles_de_GaulleStatue of De Gaulle in Paris

A “transformational’ leader is one who changes their nation in some systematic way: Mandela in South Africa; Abraham Lincoln in the US; Gorbachev in the USSR; De Gaulle, founder of the Fifth Republic, in France. These are leaders who leave the economic or political system of their country altered. By definition, they are rare, especially in settled polities. Brown may set the bar a bit too high here. Perhaps LBJ, who brought black Americans into the national fold and laid the foundations for US postwar welfare could be seen as having transformed his nation; ditto Attlee, for the creation of the NHS. Brown concedes that Blair may have a small claim to be transformational as a result of his semi-accidental constitutional reforms. But the only contemporary British politician with the potential to be transformational is Alex Salmond, should he succeed in breaking Scotland off from the UK.

In his desire for more humility in political leaders, Brown longs for a world in which political parties carry more weight, relative to their leaders. In his view, leaders have no role in setting the goals of the party, merely in implementing them. “If political parties become moribund,” he warns, “so will democracy.” This seems utopian and oddly shortsighted. Strictly defined, tightly whipped political parties have often acted against the democratic grain, rather than with it. It is not clear that democracy lives or dies with the party system.

At points, I wasn’t sure if Brown was describing the world as it is, or as he wished it could be. It is quite likely that the UK is headed for more coalition government in the future, which requires precisely the kind of collegiate leadership Brown admires. But for such leaders to succeed electorally will require a broad shift in political and popular culture. The “strong leader” may be a myth, but it is a politically powerful one.

Growing Up With A Nation That Isn’t


July 2, 2014

BOOK REVIEW

Growing Up With A Nation That Isn’t

by Dr. M. Bakri Musa,Morgan-Hill, California

Ahmad Kamil Jaafar’s Growing Up With The Nation

Marshall Cavendish, Singapore, 2013. 256 pp. RM135

The life of a diplomat, as the laity sees it, is one of glittering cocktails parties, spacious residences in leafy exclusive neighborhoods, and being pampered in MAS first-class cabins, all paid for by taxpayers.

Ahmad Kamil JaafarSo it was a surprise to read this opening line in Growing Up With The Nation, the memoir of Ahmad Kamil Jaafar, Malaysia’s former top diplomat, “The life of a diplomat and foreign policy maker can be pretty much routine and humdrum during the best of times.” Then as if to underscore this point, midway through the book, in the chapter “China – A Transformational Journey,” he writes, “Finding myself with ample free time I tried my hand at learning Chinese … and Chinese brush painting.”

This was the mid-1980s when China was undergoing, as per the chapter title, transformational changes under Deng Xiaoping. To be bored or have ample free time at such a period reflected more on the caliber of our diplomats generally rather than on Kamil Jaafar’s talent, ability, or diligence.

It was commendable for Kamil to learn Mandarin. It would have been even more impressive had he done it before being posted there. There was (and is) no lack of opportunities for learning that language in Malaysia. Granted, the Malaysian Chinese accent may be way off the Beijing variety, nonetheless the basics remain the same.

Kamil Jaafar is privileged to have been given the great opportunity and responsibility to guide the young nation. There are many others, but most are content to spend their retirement collecting lucrative GLC directorship fees and hitting golf balls. Malaysians owe Kamil a huge debt of gratitude for having taken time and effort to recollect his experiences so others could benefit.

Maximal Recollection, Minimal Reflection

Kamil’s memoir, competently written, spans a career of over three decades. He retired in 1996 as the top civil servant in the Foreign Ministry, and then continued on as Special Envoy. He covers vast expanse of water. However, as any scuba diver would tell you, the world underneath is even more rich, challenging and fascinating. Skimming the surface may get you far but at the price of missing this wonderful universe below. Stating it diplomatically, Kamil’s memoir has maximal recollection but at the expense of thoughtful reflection.

On the rare occasions when he does pause, Kamil is astute and penetrating, revealing much. Recalling a meeting between Prime Minister Mahathir and Chairman Deng, Kamil noted the large spittoon which Deng used only three times during the entire encounter. Kamil congratulated Mahathir, deeming the meeting a success, at least by that criterion. Deng may be a transformational leader of the biggest country, but in mannerisms he was just another coolie. Diplomatically spun, Deng remained faithful to his plebian origin.

During Abdullah Badawi’s tenure as Foreign Minister, Kamil felt like his ministry was under the Prime Minister’s Department. That reveals volumes as to Abdullah’s capability and contribution. Apparently Abdullah was satisfied if not reveled in being sidelined.

Abdullah was a special guest at the book’s launching. He obviously had not read the book, or if he did, missed that subtle but devastating jab. Or I could be over reading that passage.

In a post-publication interview Kamil related how tough he was with his subordinates. I wish he had been equally frank and tough on his political superiors. Did he see any parallel between Abdullah’s performance as Foreign Minister and Prime Minister? As for the other dozen or so foreign ministers Kamil served under, none merited more than just a few bland lines penned in passing. Most were skipped entirely. Perhaps that said it all.

Of all the Prime Ministers, only Mahathir did not serve concurrently as foreign minister. Yet Kamil devotes more ink to Mahathir at IDFRhim than to anyone else. His adoration for Mahathir is unbridled, and evident throughout the book. Yet when Kamil lamented on the poor English of our young diplomats and how that handicaps them professionally, he fails to make the connection. Mahathir is most responsible for this sorry state, first as Minister of Education and later as Prime Minister.

Mahathir appointed Kamil Secretary-General of the Foreign Ministry; I reckon that has much to do with this uncritical appraisal. As for that promotion, Kamil recalled his colleagues urging him to decline it, in deference to the incumbent who had been at it for only six months. That reveals the destructive culture of the civil service, this tunggu geleran (patiently waiting your turn), like landing planes at a busy airport. That, more than anything else, is responsible for the anti-meritocratic norms of the civil service. There is no such thing as “fast tracking.”

Kamil rationalized his acceptance thus:  “I dare not go against the Prime Minister’s decision.” I would have preferred had he asserted that he could do a better job. False modesty is hard to conceal while the genuine form is overrated. Besides, a senior civil servant should never fear of going against his political superior if that is the wise thing to do.

Kamil had a brief and less-than-laudatory paragraph on Prime Minister Hussein Onn, recalling a meeting involving a sensitive issue related to a neighboring country. Kamil and his counterparts in the Home Ministry including its Minister, Ghazali Shafie, had concocted a nefarious scheme the nature of which was not revealed. When they finished briefing Hussein, he became visibly angry and reprimanded them.

“What you are doing is a bottomless pit. You cannot do to others what you do not want others to do to you,” Kamil quoted Hussein, who ordered an immediate halt. Kamil did not describe his or Ghazali’s reaction to this dressing down.

Hussein was not known to be a decisive leader but on that occasion when he most needed to be, he was. That brief anecdote epitomized Hussein’s integrity and fair-mindedness. I remind readers that the odious phrase “cronyism, corruption and nepotism” entered the popular Malaysian lexicon only after Hussein left office. As an aside, he was not cited in the index, perhaps an honest slip.

John Kenneth Galbraith, Kennedy’s political-appointee Ambassador to India, wrote in his Ambassador’s Journal that Kennedy read his (Galbraith’s) dispatches because they were a joy. I assume that most diplomatic communications are not, consumed as they are with being detached and laced with bureaucratese as well as bewildering acronyms. They are also written so as not to offend anyone.

Kamil no longer needs to be deferential to his former superiors. He should have been critical of their performances. He should go beyond lamenting the current sorry state of Malaysia and analyze the “who, what, where, when, why and how.” Which leaders were most culpable for our nation not growing up? If luminaries like Kamil shy away from this crucial responsibility, then by default it would fall on the tin kosong jaguh kampong (empty tin-can village champions). And the nation would be the poorer for that.

Proposed Diplomat’s Assignment

Kamil recalled how as a young diplomat he was clueless as there was no one to guide him. Now having reached the pinnacle of his career, he put forth few ideas to guide his young successors, except for them to improve their English. That in itself reveals volumes on the state of our foreign service.

To fill this void, I share with our diplomats, young and old, this advice, the one my late father gave me before I left for Canada back in 1963. Observe the country and its people, he counseled me, be perceptive of and receptive to your new environment. Heed the wisdom of our culture, Alam terkembang di jadikan guru (Let the expanding universe be your teacher), echoing Wordsworth’s “Let nature be your teacher.”

In particular my father asked me to ponder this question:  Why was it that Canada was offering those generous scholarships to young Malaysians and not Malaysia to Canadians?

Tailoring it to our diplomats, I would advise them thus. Study one feature of your host country that is worthy of our emulation, or conversely, the one to avoid falling into. Our Third Secretary in Venezuela could learn how that country successfully used music to empower poor children and produce superb youth orchestras as well as many accomplished young conductors. Our High Commissioner to Nigeria would warn us of the fate that awaits Malaysia if it does not get a handle on corruption, while that to Pakistan, the dangers if religious extremists were to get the upper hand.

With that assignment tagged onto their regular duties our diplomats, novice and seasoned, would never again complain of their posting “being routine and humdrum,” or having “ample free time.” Thus occupied, they would not likely get themselves into mischief or otherwise embarrass the nation.

bakri-musaDr. M.Bakri Musa’s own memoir, Cast From The Herd. Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia, is due out in 2015. 

Calculated Risks: Hillary Rodham Clinton’s ‘Hard Choices’


June 25, 2014

NY TIMES SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW

Calculated Risks: Hillary Rodham Clinton’s ‘Hard Choices’

In 1969, the night before a Wellesley College senior named Hillary Rodham gave a commencement address that would draw national attention, she was introduced to Dean Acheson, the legendary former secretary of state who had come to campus for his granddaughter’s graduation. “I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say,” Acheson told Rodham. At the time, many in the country were looking forward to hearing what Acheson had to say. He had just put the finishing touches on “Present at the Creation,” his landmark memoir that would come out a few months after his encounter with the young Rodham, providing a seminal portrait of his role in helping Harry S. Truman forge a new national security architecture at the outset of the Cold War.

Forty-five years later, Hillary Rodham Clinton has delivered a memoir about her own time in the job Acheson once occupied. But “Hard Choices” is no “Present at the Creation.” Where Acheson offered a bracing, at times blunt, account of his four years as secretary of state — he eviscerated his wartime predecessor, Cordell Hull, and titled one chapter about Congress “The Attack of the Primitives Begins” — Clinton has opted for a safe and unchallenging volume, full of bromides and talking points.

To its credit, Clinton’s memoir is serious, sober and substantive. What it is not is revealing. Taking the reader along on her journey representing the United States as President Obama’s top diplomat, she provides a sophisticated analysis of many of the world’s most complicated hot spots, but no analysis of one of the world’s most complicated political figures. We learn about the progress of Botswana and the challenges facing the Democratic Republic of Congo, but we learn little about Hillary Clinton.

To compare “Hard Choices” with “Present at the Creation” may be unrealistic. Acheson was done with his career and wrote for history. Clinton is not and has not. Much as we may yearn for her to pull back the mask after more than two decades on the national stage, that’s hardly a practical expectation for someone with the Oval Office still on her to-do list. So perhaps it’s more fitting to compare her memoir not with the diplomatic histories of other secretaries of state but with the pre-campaign books of other would-be presidents. In that context, “Hard Choices” stands a cut above. It certainly demonstrates a greater mastery of the world than, say, “The Audacity of Hope,” by Barack Obama, or “A Charge to Keep,” by George W. Bush.

No fair-minded reader could finish this book and doubt Clinton’s essential command of the issues, whatever one might think of her solutions for them. She roams widely and delves into war and peace, terrorism and Russia, economic development and women’s rights. She knows the players and the history. If nothing else, she implicitly makes the case that if she were to occupy the Oval Office there would be no need for the kind of on-the-job training in foreign policy required by the last three presidents, including one she happens to know well.

Hers is a cold-eyed view of international affairs. “Our relationship with Pakistan was strictly transactional,” she writes, “based on mutual interest, not trust.” The administration’s demand that Israel stop building settlements “didn’t work.” And the desire to abandon autocrats like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was unwise: “Were we really ready to walk away from that relationship after 30 years of cooperation?”

In some ways, we do learn about one side of Clinton, the earnest wonk genuinely absorbed by the environmental and health implications of cookstoves in the developing world. When she devotes three pages to Mongolia, it’s because she finds each of the places she visits fascinating in its own way, as anyone who has traveled with her knows. Indeed, she devoted three pages to Mongolia in her last book, “Living History,” about her time as first lady. But she gives little sense of the other side of the Clinton story, of the politics and the ambition that drove her to the verge of the presidency. She discusses how her husband ordered missile strikes on Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in 1998 without mentioning that it happened just after he admitted his affair with Monica Lewinsky and she was making him sleep on the couch. She gives little sense of the darker corners of Hillaryland, as her aides took to calling her world — a world characterized at times by feuding courtiers who vie with opponents, reporters and one another.

Even when she flavors the narrative with a little revelation, the portions are stingy. She got into “a shouting match” with Leon Panetta, then the C.I.A. director, over a proposed drone strike, but doesn’t say which one, who prevailed or why she dissented. She supported the military operation in Libya over the objections of Vice President Biden and Robert Gates, then the defense secretary, but doesn’t take us into the Situation Room to hear the debate. Indeed, much to the relief of the White House, she stays resolutely away from the sort of candor that marked Gates’s own recent memoir. In his book, for instance, Gates reported that he and Clinton tried unsuccessfully to get rid of Karl Eikenberry, the ambassador to Afghanistan, and Douglas Lute, the White House coordinator for Afghanistan. “I’ve had it,” he quoted her saying. Clinton makes no mention of that. When she discusses internal debates, her adversaries are often vaguely described as “some of the president’s advisers.” There’s no score-settling here.

While Gates entitled his memoir “Duty,” Clinton might have called hers “Dutiful.” Every box that needs checking has been filled. Latin America? Check. Benghazi? Check. The book demonstrates that in at least one way she’s ready to be president — it amounts to a 600-page State of the Union address, in which every constituency and every issue receives due mention.

Clinton traveled to 112 countries as secretary of state, more than any of her predecessors, and she seemshillary-clinton-hard-choices determined to cite each one of them. (The index lists 105, but missed some she mentions, like Belarus, Brunei and Nepal.) At times, “Hard Choices” feels like the book you might have gotten by picking up your iPhone and asking Siri to write a politically safe memoir. “All the set-piece speeches and procedural mumbo-jumbo can often be deadly boring,” she concedes at one point.

If “Living History” left readers wanting to know more about the author’s relationship with the 42nd president, this new book leaves us wanting to know more about her relationship with the 44th. Unlike Acheson, Clinton had the challenge of forging a partnership with the man who beat her for the presidential nomination and then asked her to serve in his cabinet. By all accounts, she did a remarkable job of overcoming that history, and yet she doesn’t tell us how she did it or dwell on whatever personal or political trade-offs must have been involved.

Barack Obama is a peripheral figure in “Hard Choices.” Meeting with him just after their nomination battle was “like two teenagers on an awkward first date,” she allows, without much elaboration. He “took me to the woodshed” over impolitic comments by her special envoy to Egypt after he left office, she writes, without letting us hear Obama’s voice. They disagreed at pivotal moments — on cutting Mubarak loose, on arming Syrian rebels — but she mentions them only gently.

Clinton’s overarching philosophy as secretary of state seems primarily to involve engagement and hard work, the idea that showing up is as important as any treaty or ideology. Perseverance matters. Sometimes this pays off, as with the pressure campaign that eventually forced Iran to slow its nuclear program, temporarily at least. At times, though, this approach seems maddeningly inconclusive, as when Clinton works two mobile phones in the back of a car to hold together a peace deal between Armenia and Turkey, only to have it fall apart again later. She finds solace in the hope that someday the groundwork she laid will yield the breakthroughs that eluded her.

Rather than putting in place a new foreign policy, as Acheson did, Clinton portrays her tenure as a transition period and herself as just one runner in a relay race, passing along the baton. Acheson won a Pulitzer Prize for his memoir. Clinton seems to have a bigger prize in mind.