No Permit for Mkini:”Unconstitutional”

May 11, 2012

No Permit to Malaysiakini ‘unconstitutional’

by Hafiz Yatim@

The decision by the Home Ministry not to give a publishing permit to Mkini Dotcom Sdn Bhd to publish its news in the form of a newspaper is unconstitutional as it violates freedom of expression and is also against the laws of natural justice.

Lawyer K Shanmuga, who appeared for Mkini Dotcom, the owners of news portal Malaysiakini, submitted to the Kuala Lumpur High Court that the executive and the government must be fair in its approach as this is protected under Article 8(1) of the Federal Constitution regarding equality before the law.

He said there was nothing wrong in giving a permit to the news portal, which had won numerous awards internationally and locally, as it is not considered a threat to the nation.

“The decision by the Secretary-General of the Home Ministry to reject giving a permit is also a restriction over the freedom of the press, which has long been recognised by the common law as a breach of the protection of free speech.

It also violates the freedom of expression of the journalists working in Malaysiakini as they had collectively won numerous awards. A judgment in India said the newspaper industry enjoys two of the fundamental rights – namely freedom of speech and expression,” submitted Shanmuga.

Also appearing with Shanmuga are lawyers Edmund Bon and Aston Paiva.NONEMkini Dotcom has applied for a judicial review after its application for a publishing permit under Section 6(1)(a) of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 through its chief executive officer Premesh Chandran (right) was not considered by the Home Ministry in a letter dated August 19, 2010.

The company said the newspaper would be distributed in the Klang valley with a circulation of 40,000 at RM1 each and would report on current events including political issues, freely and independently.

Premesh submitted the application for a permit on behalf of Mkini Dotcom on April 14, 2010.

Shanmuga: Present newspapers significantly owned by BN

It claimed that the Ministry’s decision not to give a permit was irrational and without logic as the applicant as a media company had won numerous international awards and accolades without a single prosecution instituted against it.

“Hence it is not in any way a threat to public order, security or morality,” said Shanmuga. Shanmuga in his submission further said present newspapers like Utusan Malaysia and New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd are significantly owned by the Barisan Nasional which forms the Federal Government.

“It is said that UMNO which is the main partner in BN owns more than 40 percent of shares in Utusan Malaysia and also NSTP. This was disclosed during a proposal to unify Utusan Malaysia and the NSTP papers,” he said.

“The Home Ministry has also granted a newspaper permit to a non-governmental organisation, Pertubuhan Pribumi Perkasa Malaysia (PERKASA), as it allowed the publication of Suara Perkasa which is supportive of the Minister’s party (UMNO) and the Malaysian government’s policies, despite PERKASA bearing racial prejudices and inciting intolerance, it has not been reprimanded,” said Shanmuga.

Shanmuga said in this case the Deputy Home Minister did not give any reason for the decision to not grant a permit and the decision affects Mkini Dotcom’s and its employees’ constitutional right to speech and expression.

“Hence, the court should quash the minister’s decision as it lacks procedural fairness and violates the laws of natural justice,” he said. He further submitted that when public authorities are called upon to make decisions affecting fundamental liberties of citizens, it must act fairly, and afford reasons for their decisions.

“The decision has an impact on public life as it would result in a stifling of the nation’s public debate, restriction to the free flow of information and ideas to citizens, a stultifying of the Malaysian democratic framework and a monopoly of control of information and ideas in the country.”

Following this, Shanmuga said the company has applied for the judicial review application. Senior Federal counsel Norhisham Ismail said he will make his submission on three points – namely a permit is not an automatic right but a result of privilege by the government, the constitutional challenge was not proper and there was logical reasoning to the decision.

However, High Court judge Abang Iskandar Abang Hashim asked Norhisham to submit further on May 24 as time was approaching for Friday prayers.

Titles do not matter

June 12, 2010

Just call me Encik, thank you very much

by Neil Khor (

Whilst we cannot ever hope to understand why Chua Jui Meng was stripped of his Johor titles, one lesson has emerged from Chua’s experience. It is better not to accept any titles and honorifics except the ones that cannot be taken away.

Encik sounds very nice to my ears and anyone born in Malaysia can avail themselves to the title.  If one has worked very hard for a medical degree, one can call oneself ‘Doctor’. As medical doctors will tell you, once they have completed their post-graduate studies and become specialists, they revert to ‘Mr’.

The only “real” doctors around are those with a PhD, (Doctor of Philosophy). Once earned, such titles are impossible to lose. If indeed one loses them, the conferring body will usually have a responsibility to explain why, thus giving one the opportunity to defend one’s case.

Interestingly, we are a nation that is so “hard-up” for titles that those in private universities “confer” honorary doctorates on their own vice-chancellors. Honorary doctorates cannot be used as freely as real doctorates. But nowadays, there are so many universities and so many doctorates that the degree and title is fast becoming meaningless. One therefore has to affix the conferring body (i.e. PhD Oxon (for Oxford) or PhD Cantab (for Cambridge) etc).

Blame it on the British

Perhaps, like everything else, we should blame the British for our fixation with titles, medals and abbreviations. If we had been ruled by the French, we might not have such a system in place. We might not even have monarchs, for that matter, especially after France became a republic in the late 18th century.

But the British who colonised Malaya were class-ridden and feudal-minded. There was a colour bar and ‘whites-only’ clubs.

Even as late as the 1950s, the Sultan of Selangor was not allowed into the Lake Club. It required the iron will of General Templar, then the High Commissioner to Malaya, to “convince” the members to allow the Sultan to go through its hallowed doors.

In 1867, after the bloody Penang Riots involving fighting between rival Sino-Malay groups, which also demonstrated the possibility of Sino-Malay cooperation, the British went into overdrive to separate the races. It was better for the Malays and Chinese and Indians not to mix “too much”. It was not long after the incident that an Inspectorate of Police was established (1872), indirect rule through headmen ended in the Straits Settlements and secret societies that operated quite openly were regulated and later disbanded (1885).

But the most effective way to getting the unruly Chinese and the rebellious Malays into the ambit of the race-based and hierarchical colonial system was to set up a corresponding system of “merit” made up of medals and titles. Of course, this included the Malay rulers themselves and they were obliged to be included into the pecking order, with Queen Victoria at the top. In fact, it was the Jewish British Prime Minister Disraeli who cobbled together the title ‘Queen-Empress of India’ for Queen Victoria.

‘Rake’s progress of upward mobility’

To get onto to the social hierarchy, one must first earn the title Justice of Peace (JP). In Penang, the first Malay to be so honoured was Sheikh Omar Basheer, an influential religious figure who helped draw the Malays out of the secret societies. He was truly a peace-maker and community leader.

Among the Chinese, the first JPs included wealthy revenue-farmers like Koh Seang Tat, Foo Tye Sin and Cheah Chen Eok.

It would appear that the tradition of honouring business tycoons began a very long time ago. In those days, however, business tycoons were also civic-society leaders, philanthropists and patrons of schools. The income disparity was also much wider and society was more “respectful” of their social betters.

As the years passed and colonial society grew more complex, the honour system also expanded with new rungs added onto the ladder. JP was suddenly the first step in a very long ‘rake’s progress’ of upward mobility.

There was the Order of the British Empire (OBE), given for meritorious service to the British Empire, usually after the person has donated money to some imperial cause.  Then, there was the Commander of the British Empire (CBE), given out more sparingly to those who have served on the various legislative councils representing the interests of one’s race.

Next came the stratosphere, for none of the previous titles and medals actually came with an honorific. The only “distinction” they gave was the right to place the abbreviation behind one’s name (i.e. Koh Seang Tat, JP OBE).

But getting onto the next echelon meant something else. The abbreviations KBE and KCBE stood for Knight of the British Empire and Knight Commander of the British Empire respectively. One can now put the title ‘Sir’ before one’s name. By today’s standards, the first level ‘Sir’ is level with ‘Tan Sri’, whilst the upper-level ‘Sir’ was equal to our ‘Tun’.

However, for the Malay rulers and the various colonial governors and high commissioners, the titles and medals became even more elaborate. KCMG which translates into Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael & St George, has also been taken to mean “Kindly Call Me God”. Then there was GCMG Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael & St George, GCMG being said mean “God Calls Me God”.

The first Chinese to have been made a Knight was Sir Ong Siang Song of Singapore. A staunch Christian and a Queen’s Scholar, he rendered great service to the cause of the Chinese in Singapore.

Naked without titles

In Malaya, there were several common people who were made Knights. In Penang, there was Sir Kamil Ariff, a founder-member of the Penang Malay Association (the precursor to Penang UMNO) and Sir Hussein Abdulcader, a lawyer.

In Johor, there was Sir Onn Jaafar, the founder-president of UMNO, whereas Melaka had Sir Cheng Lock Tan, the founder-president of the MCA. Selangor had millionaire and MCA stalwart Sir HS Lee.

It is human nature to want to be distinguished. Some prefer to be pious or at least outwardly pious to win a seat by God’s side. Others prefer to accumulate wealth so that they can be “respected” by those who are not as rich. Some prefer the politician’s soap-box, so they can champion a cause, which very often is bound-up with self-interest.

There are those who feel naked without some titles and abbreviations after their name, as though medals and titles ‘maketh the man’.

But there is a draw-back to being so distinguished – one can always find oneself on the wrong side in a flick of the eye, like all those OBEs, CBEs and JPs experienced when the Japanese Imperial Army marched into Malaya and expelled the British. They were among the first to be hauled up, slapped in public, and kenneled in enemy camps. Of course, most survived, but never again were they regarded by their fellow men as social “betters”.

For those aspiring for ‘Datukships’, they should take a leaf from history and Chua Jui Meng’s experience: It is much better to be just an ‘Encik’, at least they can’t take that away from you.

NEIL KHOR has recently completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge. He is co-author of ‘Non-Sectarian Politics in Malaysia: The Case of Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia’ (2008).

Noam Chomsky is back

December 28, 2009

Noam Chomsky is back with some interesting observations about American Democracy and the so-called Liberal Media. We always think America is a model of democracy. Is it? Of course, it is more democratic compared to Zimbabwe, Myanmar and Malaysia. Listen to what Noam Chomsky has to say on the American system of government.

To me, Professor Chomsky is a refreshing voice about issues of concern to all of us who are seeking to ensure that democracy thrives in our country. One of the key foundations of democracy is a free and independent media. The media  in America is controlled by corporate interests and these interests seek to skew news and  information to serve their political and commercial interests.

In Malaysia, the media is controlled by UMNO-Barisan Nasional  government which has been in power for the last 52 years. The media puts out news and views which are slanted to shape public opinion and put the government of the day in a favorable light and there is no way in which criticisms of government policies and actions can see the light of day in our media. As for our democracy, need I say more?–Din Merican

Noam Chomsky–American Democracy

The Myth of the Liberal Media

‘Level Four Boys’: Damaging bane for PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah?

The ‘Level Four Boys’ have been suspected to be the real and actual ‘decision makers’ of the Government, since the creation of the office in 2003. They are now believed to have an unprecedented overpowering and absolute control of the Prime Minister of Malaysia, PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, in the official capacity as the Chief Executive of the country and leader of UMNO, the ruling party.

The primary function of this Private Office of the Prime Minister is to assist the Prime Minister to do his job. It then grew so powerful that it actually undertook a lot of decision making process influences previously provided by agencies like the Economic Planning Unit, Manpower Planning Unit and at times Cabinet itself. Of course, some of top party decisions are also undertaken by this team.

The ‘Level Four Boys’ is a term first introduced by the Former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in his speech dedicated to criticize PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah and his administration at a closed-door event. The event was organized by Malaysia-Today at Century Paradise Club, Taman Melawati, Ulu Kelang on 22 June 2006.

It was in reference to the ‘inner circle’, comprising of his son, Dato’ Kamaluddin Abdullah, son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin and close personal aides such as Dato’ Ahmad Zaki Zahid, Dato’ Kamal Khalid, Dato’ Dr. Vincent Lim Kian Tick, Dato’ Wan Farid and a few others.

Many speculate the overwhelming ‘influence’ these thirty-something gentlemen possess. With top British university education and grossly lack of experience and exposure (especially macro-management), they are often coyly referred to as, “Budak tak kerin’ idun” (wet behind the ears) by Tun Dr. Mahathir. Somehow, the real far-reaching effects these young men have on the decisions by PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah, is really both strategically and tactically damaging.

It was Dr. Vincent Lim and Zaki Zahid who influenced PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah on the decision to cancel the “Scenic bridge-replacing the Johor Causeway” in March 2006. Then, these duo, also concocted the blue-print of the mega project South Johor Economic Region (SJER). It has since been renamed twice, as Iskandar Development Region in November 2006, and last week, Iskandar Malaysia. It is deemed that Iskandar Malaysia is a comprehensive development program to benefit Singapore strategically, allowing contraband from nations such as Israel, to be channeled into this region of 240 million Muslims, via Johor Bahru.

Iskandar Malaysia is now being seen as the beginning of the demise of the New Economic Policy as PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah long time mentor, now made IDRA Advisory Panel Chairman former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Musa Hitam made the announcement in Johor Bahru March last year.

Zaki was said to have sat with PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah at the many Khazanah Holdings Bhd. special briefings to the Prime Minister. He is said to be the one who asked the many questions transpired after each briefing. Holding such a strategic position and having a very close ear to PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah, he led to the Proton scandal of disposing highly valuable MV Agusta to highly elusive and mysterious Gevi S.p.A for one Euro and Husqavarna (one of the brands under MV Agusta) was then sold off to BMW Motorcycles last year for a whopping Euro 93 million price tag.

The National Automotive Policy, which is the systematical and structured program to see the slow demise of Proton, was actually put in place by Zaki, with the help of his long time buddy Omar Mustapha Ong of Ethos Consulting. The duo were also instrumental in the giga economic development corridor humongous masterplans of Northern Corridor Economic Region, Eastern Corridor Economic Region, Sabah Development Corridor and Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy. The implementation and deliverance of these giga proportion economic development projects is thought by many to be highly doubtful.

Khairy Jamaluddin is said to have brought Air Asia’s boss, Tony Fernandes, to the Seri Perdana Complex for a private briefing with PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah on the weekend before the Malaysia Airlines Rationalisation Plan was announced. Suspiciously, Malaysia Airlines had to give up its entire domestic route (plus Rural Air Service) except for nineteen to AirAsia. This program saw an immediate redundancy for over 3,500 loyal serving airline professionals. Khairy’s close association with Fernandes was finally revealed when the latter joined ECM Libra as a director and shareholder, after Khairy made the announcement to sell of his stake in the recently obtained a universal stock broking license for the now capitally and resource enlarged firm.

Khairy, who had left the Prime Minister’s Office as the Deputy Chief Secretary in August 2005, was actually brought in to a special briefing on Singapore to the Prime Minister by Foreign Minister Dato’ Seri Syed Hamid Al Bar. The insistance of his stay in the meeting was, “Khairy is an expert on Singapore”. Khairy’s personal affiliation of Singapore is so apparent that since PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah ascended to Premiership, the bi-lateral relationship with Singapore had never been so close. So much so, even Malaysian Government and Khazanah are emulating and adopting ‘The Singapore Way’ of doing things, et al; including their terminology, “Government linked company” (GLC) in exchange to previous used “Government controlled company”.

Conveniently, at the ASEAN Head of Government meeting in November 2005, held at KLCC Convention Centre, Malaysia as the chair and host, led a charge against Myanmar in the pressure for ‘democratization’. This is very much favourable to the West, and was previously, a Singapore’s crusade within ASEAN. Malaysia, as a founding member defied its own policies and breached the fundamental ASEAN principle of “Non-interference in domestic politics” policy. In short, Malaysia saw a shift in foreign policy since Khairy came into the main administration scene.

In December 2005, when asked by The Star, on the proposed merger of ECM Libra and Avenue Capital, which directly involved his son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin, PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah conveniently answered “I don’t know, I am not involved”. There is a serious breach of several explicit provisions within Securities and Companies Act, as Khairy, obviously, had vested interests in the high-powered but dodgy deal. Protests by the Minority Stockholders Watchdog Group against several issues in the merger were conveniently ignored by the Securities Commission. Until present, the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee had not resolved the findings to his highly talked about scandal, especially within the capital market practitioners.

Recently, the sixteen-page private letter which Wanita UMNO Head, Dato’ Seri Rafidah Aziz had sent to PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah as a post-election reaction. The letter somehow found its way to Khairy’s mother, Datin Rahmah Abdul Hamid, and the former got a surprising earful from the latter, via telephone.

Dato’ Kamaluddin Abdullah, the biggest shareholder of Scomi Bhd., has the most to gain. His company had a meteoric rise in the Malaysia corporate scene since five years ago. Recently, post 12th General Elections (PRU 12), after Tun Dr. Mahathir and Dato’ Mukhriz demanded PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah to resign immediately, and Tengku Tan Sri Razaleigh Hamzah asked 18,000 UMNO branches to hold an Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM), Tun Musa went to meet PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah at Seri Perdana. As a former ‘leader’ to PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah, Tun Musa was giving his two bits personal advice on current political situation in the private meeting, when suddenly, Kamaluddin stormed in and said to his father “What ever you do, do not agree to an EGM!”. The immediate reaction from Tun Musa was, “Who is the Prime Minister, you or him”, pointing towards Kamaluddin.

Kamaluddin was the organiser of the infamous Seri Perdana Merdeka Soiree, the week Malaysia celebrated its 50th birthday at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence, Seri Perdana. An esteemed flock of high-powered Malaysians were the only admitted guests, plus some from abroad, to enjoy the R & B renditions of George Benson and Al Jarreau. The fact is that, since occupying Seri Perdana, the first family have not been having the average Malaysians as guests. Not even the traditional first day Hari Raya Aidil Fitri Open House, introduced during his predecessors’ time. The only time average rakyat were allowed access into Seri Perdana since five years ago was during Datin Seri Endon Mahmood’s passing in October 2005.

Of course, the issue of media control, is the real propaganda agenda which has been taken to task by the Prime Minister’s Office Media Coordinator Dato’ Kamal Khalid. Nowadays, the mainstream media editors get calls from this office more frequently than ever. Not only what were allowed to be published were discussed, the angle of the news and the photos to be used were instructed and selected. Surprisingly, these spin effort were never really discussed with the Boss. For example, the weeks preceeding to his wedding with Jeanne Abdullah in June 2005, editors were instructed that the rumours cannot be raised during any media conferences with PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah. Conveniently, the sloppy Malaysian leader ‘let the cat out of the bag’, voluntarily.

The most recent incident took place, just before the PRU 12, PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah did something amazingly unprecedented as UMNO President and BN Chairman. In a meeting with UMNO Management Committee, PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah suddenly took over the prepared BN Manifesto. When asked by Rafidah “Lah, siapa buat BN Manifesto ni? Kita tak pernah tahu pun!“. Coyly, the answer was “Ini Zaki yang buat. He is very good, you know!”.

Time and again, PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah overtly vehement denied that his son-in-law, Khairy, was ever involved in his decision-making, be it in the Government, or the party. Since the famous TV 3 special interview, conducted by Bernama Chairman Annuar Zaini, no one in the streets actually believed him. Not even the folks in the boondocks, who have never in their lifetime had access to internet. When UMNO Pulau Pinang met up with PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah on rumours that certain unfavourable characters were to be pitted by BN as candidates in the state, his response was “Nanti saya balik, bincang dengan Khairy“.

Within this week, one of the Press Secretary Wan Esuriyanti was leaving her post. Khairy took to the task to interview Dato’ Ainon Ahmad, a former NST journalist, for the job. PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah’s trusts for his aides like Kalimullah “Riong Kali” Hassan, had actually propelled him on a self-destruction mode, prematurely.

The most recent controversial is the ’self-righteous populist’ direction PM ‘Flip-Flop’ is going, with regards to the Judiciary issue. Last night, he announced the reinstatement of gratuities and emoluments, ex-gratia, of the sacked Judges since the highly controversial but lawful ejection of Lord President Tun Mohamed Salleh Abas and four other judges in August 1988. It was almost an admission of guilt and will lead to endless further ramblings. It is still a mystery why PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah is willing to depart from the normal convention and thread along these ice-thin line which set a new irrevocable precedent, when it actually served no tangible value for the majority of Malaysians, who are actually non-chalant about this whole issue. The fact that Tun Salleh is the father-in-law of his son’s partner in Scomi, Shah Hakim Zain, is not quashing other speculations by skeptics of this odd move.

It is too apparent that the PM ‘Flip-Flop’ Abdullah has been grossly insulated from real information, and an over-reliance to the ‘Level Four Boys’ for the information all way through the decision making process. The decisions made had reached its overbearing level and inviting series of ‘mini rebellions’, within the society and system. An example never before in the 35 year history of illustrious service of Malaysia Airlines, did passengers feel so frustrated with delays and poor service of the once pride of the nation. Of course, the rate of the Police Force efficiency has deteriorated greatly, ever since the “Naked-ear-squat-in-lock-up” case, which also saw Malaysia made a totally unneccessary apology to China.

All these, were actually the most important factors why the rakyat decided to vote against BN. Blaming it on UMNO and BN’s fifth columnists was never the right approach, nor convincing enough. This is further topped by the continuous grossly vomit-level arrogance of, “We won big. We have a big mandate from the rakyat. Just eight short of two-third majority”, which will systematically drive the rakyat’s confidence and support away from UMNO and BN.

In short, the once respectable Cabinet Minister for his “pious and clean” outlook, is now being systematically destroyed and it is damagingly irreversible, by a small group of thirty-something, for his grave over reliance and morbid dependence on information and decision making process.

To Jong, Jude and their Gang in Ipoh

I have decided to ask Diana Krall, jazz pianist and singer, to offer you some advice. But basically, I want to thank you all and others too for reading and expressing your views in this blog. Kamsia lu, lah. If Kinta Valley is too boring, drop by in Kuala Lumpur—Din Merican

When you vote wrongly

This is not distinction. It is more 5 years of corruption, and nearer to extinction. Avoid this (below) at all costs and support democratic governance—open, transparent and accountable government —with the consent of the people.


Avoid Decline and Fall of University of Malaya

Din Merican comments:

The University of Malaya (UM) is more than 100 years old (established in 1905) with the same starting point as The National University of Singapore (NUS). But today, it pales in comparison to NUS in terms of curriculum quality, academic standards and reputation. The former is a laggard and the latter is among the best in the world.

In this article (below), Dr. Syed Husin Ali who taught at UM explains why this university which was a household name when I was a student in early 1960s (when both UM and NUS were known as The University of Malaya, stress is on the word “THE”) has declined in academic standards despite massive investment of tax ringgits. It saddens me to see that Universiti Malaya is now ranked poorly by the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES).

I wrote about the pathetic state of Universiti Malaya a few years ago and so has my frequent collaborator, Dr. M. Bakri Musa. All our comments and suggestions have fallen on deaf ears. The government is too arrogant to listen us and other Malaysians these days.

There is too much political and ministerial interference in the way all our universities are being run. Some of our best minds like Yale and Harvard educated economist, Dr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram (now with the United Nations), Dr Chandra Muzaffar (now with JUST), Dr. Farish A. Noor (now at NUS), and Dr Azly Abdul Rahman (at Columbia University, New York), to name a few, have left. The remaining few good academics have either been marginalized, or have chosen to be apologists and kaki ampus for the government.

A University is not just bricks and mortar. It is home for the flowering of the human mind and the development of human character, for research and teaching excellence. It is also an abode for poets, authors and intellectuals. Malaysia is empty when intellectualism is dead. A country without a thriving community of intellectuals is, in my humble opinion, one without a soul. That is why we have become mediocre and corrupt as a nation.

Kuala Lumpur
February 4, 2008

By Dr Syed Husin Ali*

On 2nd February 2008, the University of Malaya (UM) Alumni held quite an elaborate bash to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the university (in Pantai Valley). That could have been a most appropriate time to evaluate the performance and achievement of the university and to chart an excellent future for itself. But as is usual in this country, such an occasion was used more for ceremonial purpose to provide political mileage to government ministers rather than to discuss serious matters relating to the university and its future.

It is public knowledge that UM has declined as an academic institution. Locally, UM is no longer considered the premier university. It has been overtaken by others like the Science University (USM) and the National University (UKM). Internationally, according to the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) scale of achievement, UM’s position for the years from 2004 to 2007 declined from 89 to 169 to 192 and finally out of the first 200 category. Perhaps, the only “consolation” for UM was that none of the other Malaysian universities had made it into the same category.

There are many factors that have caused the decline of UM and the other local universities. In my considered opinion, the following three factors are the most serious.


The apex of academic and administrative leadership of the university stands the Vice-Chancellor (VC). Since the Search Committee system was abandoned, the Prime Minister now advises the King on the government’s choice of a VC. Quite often political and ethnic backgrounds become prime considerations.Recently there was an attempt to revive the Search Committee at UM, but it did not gain much credibility and respect because many of the members were not considered independent of government influence.

As we can see, most VCs in the existing 20 public universities are unknown personalities, lacking in academic merit, administrative ability and long term vision on how to build the university into a centre of excellence for teaching and research. Actually, a good VC need not possess an outstanding academic qualification (although it is a bonus), but he or she must have a clear vision on how to establish an excellent academic institution and the guts to make things happen. Only a handful of the VCs have this vision and the administrative ability. The rest are very mediocre, to say the least.

Among the first actions they take on being appointed are to embellish their offices and then bestow upon themselves the title of professor. Except for very few, most of them are more concerned with pleasing their political masters and to ensure that the university staff and students will be subservient to the government. This is the way to get their services renewed before their tenure ends.

After the implementation of the University and University Colleges Act (UCCA)—a legacy of the Mahathir era—the VC is empowered to appoint Deans of Faculty (who were elected by faculty members before) and Heads of Department (who in the past were very often Professors or the most senior member of the department enjoying respect of the majority). Nowadays and very often the VC appoints Deans and Heads from among those whom she considers will readily do her biddings without question. Many of them are not professors and sometimes not even a senior member of the faculty or department. As a result, lots of dissatisfaction arose which affected good academic environment.

Actually, the true academic leaders in any university are the Professors. In any good university worth its name, they are appointed or promoted purely on the basis of merit – their research, publication, teaching and peer assessment. At one time, before someone was appointed professor, he was assessed by three assessors, usually from three continents. Their academic assessments were the most important basis for the Appointment Board to make its decision.

Now, some universities have done away with the assessors. Even if they are still maintained, their assessments are not given primary consideration. Many have been made professors on the basis of the administrative positions assigned to them, strengthened by their pro-government political orientation and good relationship with the VC, preferably buttressed by closeness with some influential government figures. We have many professors now who have little or nothing to show for their academic merit. So, they just cannot inspire their junior colleagues and even students. But I do not deny there are a few outstanding ones.

As a result of all these, a good number of academically outstanding staff members are sidelined. Many of them get demoralized and lose the motivation to undertake research and publish. No doubt this should not happen if they are true scholars, but many are affected because they know good academic work will not help in the promotion exercises. Besides, a number of outstanding and internationally recognized academics have not been viewed with favour simply because they have the courage and integrity to voice independent views and criticize openly unethical practices perpetrated by the university authorities and the government. Many of them have been forced to leave the university. Consequently, the environment for good scholarship is undermined.


Generally, the quality of lecturers in various universities including UM has improved, viewed in terms of the paper qualifications they possess. The number of lecturers with Ph.D. in different fields continues to increase. But paper qualification is not the sole measure of quality. It is noticeable that many in the university almost stop to improve themselves after they succeed with their doctorate. They do not keep abreast with developments in their own fields. They cease to read journals and new books.They do not even develop interest in general reading. As a result there is a tendency for many lecturers to recycle old lecture notes. Of course, this affects their quality of teaching and graduates the university

When academic staff fails to keep abreast with new Knowledge in their own field, research and publication activities will also be affected adversely. To make it worse good academic leadership cannot be expected from those professors who gain
their positions not on the basis of merit or competence. Sometimes there is deficiency in planning and executing research and also in the purchase of ertain related equipment which are sophisticated and expensive. A good number of research projects have topped half way, expensive equipment left to “rot” and big financial allocations gone to waste. There is no result to show that can help boost the ranking of the university according to excellence.

Whilst there are those in some universities showered with huge grants, on the other hand there are some lecturers from other universities who are very keen and able to undertake research but cannot find any or enough research grants to help them. Ironically, sometimes these are the same universities which can afford to spend huge amount of money on quite unnecessary physical development and wasteful functions and celebrations. There is need for the universities to rearrange their priorities.

Again, just having good paper qualification is not enough. Good research, publications and scholarship emerge from creative and critical minds. Unfortunately, it is very apparent that local universities, including UM, do not encourage or promote these qualities. What needs to be said for the time being is that this is very much the consequence of the type and quality of education prevailing at the school level. It is generally agreed that our school system is deteriorating and standards are falling.

It is true that more students now score maximum number of A1 in different subjects than before, for instance in the SPM examinations. A student’s success is often measured according to the number of A1 he obtains. To achieve this he is made to slog by both the school and the family. Competition among schools and students becomes very keen. Admittedly, competition is often good, but it should be of the right type with the right purpose.

In schools, lessons are often crammed almost all through memory work. At home parents who can afford send their children for tuition. There is little time or children to enjoy real education in the true sense of the word. Not much attention is paid to help or train students to be critical and creative. Thus, when they go to the university and graduate to become lecturers, for instance, they lack the critical and creative mind that can help them in good research and publication. Only a small number become true scholars.

To make matters worse, a few universities employ graduates with second lower honours degree as lecturers, whereas some of them do not deserve to be considered even as tutors or research assistants. Although their number is small, yet there is a problem with this even although they may be dedicated teachers. The sad thing is that there are also many highly qualified academic staff who fail to show full dedication to their work.

They undertake minimum research, rarely publish and go to lectures unprepared and late. They treat their academic profession merely as a career. They have little sense of commitment and even responsibility.Certainly such negative attitudes amongst them must be overcome by providing good academic environment and traditions which almost all our universities lack. Of course all these need good academic leadership right from the top which is generally found wanting now.


I have argued earlier that as a result of direct political interference in appointment of VCs, Universities are not able to get the best candidate and indirectly this has resulte in the appointment of Deans and Department Heads of questionable calibre.Government political interference is also seen in the appointment of members of the University Senate, the highest body responsible for the academic and administrative functions of the university.

Since the inception of UM until the implementation of the amended UCCA in 1975, this body known as the University Council, had a membership of 20-30 representatives from different groups, such as the academic staff, the alumni, professional bodies, Rulers’ Council, state governments and so on. The Council was often diverse and balanced in composition. The primary concern of the members was mainly to promote excellence and welfare of the university and
its members.

Nowadays the Council has been replaced by what is called the Board of Directors, with membership that is less than a third of the Council and not so diverse. Many of the members are closely linked to government politics (or administration) and big business. Some of them have never been known to be interested in either the university or education in general. Many are often obsessed by ways and means of making money for the University. Their mental attitude seems to be no different from board members of business companies. The difference is that they are more subservient to government.

The universities at present are treated like any government department with the university staff regarded as government servant. Many rules and regulations constrain and constrict the autonomy of the university and the freedom of the academic staff. As if the numerous draconian laws for the whole country, such as the International Security Act(ISA), Official Secrets Act (OSA) and the UCCA are not sufficient, the “Akujanji” (I promise) agreement is introduced specially for university staff members. By it, they are required to swear allegiance practically to the government in power, not to the State or King.

These acts and regulation exacerbate the worsening authoritarian atmosphere in the country and within the university. They cripple the mind of the academic staff. Most of them become almost uncritical and uncreative, always fearful of or subservient to the authorities. Good academic environment cannot prevail and excellent academic work cannot be produced where the mind is not free. Under such conditions, how can our universities compete with the best in the world?

True there are some authoritarian sates whose universities have achieved excellence. But more often than not they give special treatment and provide the best for their universities. They ensure their universities have the best brains who are recruited locally and from overseas, and are provided with adequate research facilities and enough research funds.

It is most ironic and despairing that the decline of the local universities, particularly UM, has worsened after the establishment of the Ministry for Higher Education. The ministry and especially the minister himself, has increasingly interfered with not only the administration of the university, but also insist on having final say over the introduction of academic courses and even in the drawing up of their curricula. They allow government politicians to use the university as platform to gain and extend their support, but deny equal opportunity to dissenting persons or views.

A truly autonomous and free university should in fact be open to all leading and authoritative figures so that the university can develop as a true centre for dialogue, debate, discourse, and presentation of various ideas and views on political, cultural, religious and other matters.

Such intellectual activity, besides the ability to carry out good research, produce excellent publications, give good supervision to post-graduate students, maintain first class research library and facilities, certainly is one of the ways to make the university a true centre to seek truth, knowledge and excellence. Otherwise the university will further decline and finally fall.

* Dr Syed Husin Ali was Professor, Head of Anthropology and Sociology Department, member of the Senate and Council at the University of Malaya. He obtained his Ph.D. in 1972 from the LSE (London School of Economics and Political Science) and for a short spell in 2005 was British Academy Visiting Professor at the University of Cambridge. He is author of several books and now Deputy President of KeADILan or PKR (People’s Justice Party).

Knowledge and Action: The Twin Pincers of Progress

By Din Merican

God, The Most Merciful and Most Compassionate, said “READ” (Surah Al ‘Alaq, 96:1).

The Qur’an is the only Holy Book with a command to read. God has conferred a great honour on knowledge and the learned that before ordaining prayers and fasting, before giving details of the Islamic creed and the law to be revealed. See Surah Ali Imran 3:18; Surah Ta Ha 20:114; Surah Al ‘Ankabut 29:20; Surah Al Zumar 39: 11; Surah Al Mujadilah 58:11,and Surah Al Qalam 68:1. The Arab word for knowledge (ilm) and its derivatives appear 850 times in the Qu’ran. Knowledge is not just theoretical as all knowledge must lead to action (Surah Al Tawbah 9:105). This is Islam (and not Islam Hadhari).

Ignorance and idleness engulfs the Muslim world today. This shows that we do not believe in the essential teachings of the Qur’an. In Malaysia, we are subject to “political islam” which is propagated by the state which seeks to monopolise and control discourse on all matters relating to Islam, and exercise power over the Malays and Muslims in our country. As a result, I think, there is less interest in learning, working, continuous creativity and intellectual activity among us Muslims in this country.

Even our universities are subject to rigid control and academics who dare to think and act independently are shanted aside in favour of those who toe the “official line”. There is also no intellectual/cendiakawan community to speak of. Public intellectuals are seen as “trouble makers’ who deserve no better than a sojourn in Kamunting under the Internal Security Act. A massive cloud of fear overhangs the national landscape and the mother of all evils, mediocrity and kiasu take over.

Courage and truthfulness, defense of the right, fight against injustice and exploitation, and championing the rights of the weak and meek are mere slogans by the UMNO-led government when, in fact, these are qualities and deeds of a true Muslim.

But before we can take action, we must have knowledge. Read first; we must be able differentiate right from wrong, know the laws of the real world in which we live, and then and only then we can take action. Action is not just talk. The Qur’an establishes a method. It enjoins Muslim to move, marshal observations, record data and then examine all available facts. It was, unfortunately, Francis Bacon who introduced the method of induction a 1,000 years after the revelation of the Qur’an. If only we had made an effort to understand our Holy Book and acted according to its commands, the Islamic world would have been well ahead of the West.

How many of us remember Jabir Ibn Hayyan (chemistry), Ibn Arabi (mysticism), Ibn Haytham (in mathematics and geometry), the great Andalusian philosophers, poets and musicians, and the Arab astronomers who contributed to human knowledge when Europe was in the Dark Ages. Our ancestors combined their knowledge with work (action) and this combination of knowledge and work contributed to the advance of civilization. They were inspired by the word, Read, the first word revealed, that the Holy Prophet Muhammad pbuh was directed to convey to his followers.

A true Muslim is both a man (and woman) of knowledge and of action. In fact, the Qur’an says it best:
Those who have faith
And do righteous deeds-
They are the best of creatures.”
(Surah Al Bayyinah 98:7).

The Holy Prophet pbuh, our role model, was not just a man who was the Messenger of God or a reciter of the Qur’an. He was a hard worker and a very successful business man. He was the first to lead in times of war; he led from the front and shared the life of his soldiers, their hunger and thirst, and their fears. He was a prophet who conveyed a message of hope and salvation, a soldier who fought his battles valiantly, a field commander who planned both strategy and tactics, and a politician who administered the affairs of state with justice for all and with prudence. He was also a devout Muslim, truthful and honest, never sullying his tongue or his hand. He never shirked a burden in the service of that cause for which he fought and for which he would have died. He was a kind father, a good husband and a loyal friend.

Our Prophet Muhammad pbuh is the epitome of transformational leadership and of incessant hard work. If you seek to reach the right destination, you cannot get there without knowledge and action. Talk is cheap; promises must not be taken lightly and commitments must be honoured. Our leaders must do good deeds and serve the people and not themselves, their families and cronies. Otherwise, they are not fit to govern.

That is why as Malaysians, we must hold our leaders to high standards of ethics and public accountability. We must not be scared to change our leaders when they fail to perform. We should do that by democratic and constitutional means, of course. We must put to an end to this prevailing culture of impunity. We must no longer allow corrupt and incompetent leaders to remain in power. Otherwise, Malaysia will degenerate into a third rate nation, no longer respected by the community of nations.

It takes hard work to be great again. Greatness is not a stroll in Taman Tasik Perdana, or an excursion to National Park in Pahang.

Goenawan Mohamed: HIJAU

Di dunia yang letih, orang sering mengutip sebaris sajak Federico Garcia Lorca: Verde que te quiero verde…

Hijau, kumau engkau hijau:
Bintang agung beku dingin
Tiba dengan bayang ikan
Yang merintis fajar

Puisi Lorca mempesona karena loncatan-loncatannya – warna hijau, bintang agung, bayang ikan, hari fajar — yang tak pernah bisa dipertalikan rapi dalam satu tafsir, tapi memperkaya kita dengan imaji-imaji yang mengejutkan, baru, segar, tak terulangi, seperti dalam mimpi.

Maka di dunia yang mulai lelah, puisi, atau imaji yang menari, segar, meloncat-loncat, dan tak disangka-sangka — ya, juga warna hijau – jadi alternatif (yang tak diakui) bagi sebuah kehidupan yang mengabaikan itu semua. Modal, mesin dan birokrasi telah membuat sistem yang meringkus tarian seperti itu, sistem yang hanya kenal persisnya lajur laporan keuangan dan bagan eksak di buku-buku teknik. Baik kapitalisme (digerakkan orang Eropa dan Amerika) maupun sosialisme (dimulai di Uni Soviet dan Cina) sama-sama membentuk dunia dalam garis lurus itu — garis “modernitas” dan “kemajuan”, garis nalar yang menghitung, mencapai, dan menghasilkan. Itulah garis penaklukan dunia. Puisi yang menari, sebaliknya, tak hendak menaklukkan. Ia tak hendak memaksa apa yang di luar dirinya, elemen hidup yang tak terduga. “Le poète ne force pas le réel,” kata René Char.

Sudah lama sebenarnya masalah ini dikemukakan. Tapi sebagaimana Lorca hanya mengutarakan hasratnya di antara lanskap yang memukau tapi tragis di Andalusia, puisi — dan pelbagai suara yang gundah menyaksikan “modernitas” dan “kemajuan” — hanya bisa bicara secara terbatas.

Memang suara yang menghendaki “hijau” itu terkadang membingungkan. Ia tak menawarkan cara bagaimana menghentikan keniscayaan pertumbuhan ekonomi dan perlunya kemajuan teknologi. Sesekali bahkan ia mengandung racun kecurigaan dan kebencian: di tahun 1930-an, di Jerman, pemujaan akan Blut und Boden (“darah dan tanah”) dikobarkan para penganjur Naziisme, yang ingin menjaga kemurnian Jerman dengan tradisi dan alamnya yang perawan, agar Volk, bangsa atau ras, tak tercemar oleh persentuhan dengan “yang-asing” dan “yang- borjuis” di kota besar.

Memang ada yang indah, tapi kuno, juga konyol, atau reaksioner dalam seruan “hijau” di masa lampau.

Tapi abad ke-21 mengubah semua itu. Sambutan kepada film dokumenter An Incovenient Truth adalah indikasinya: film dokumenter yang dibuat dengan ongkos satu juta dollar in begitu laris di mana-mana; ia dapat menghjimpun dana 49 juta dollar lebih. Al Gore, tokoh di pusat film yang memperingatkan perubahan iklim global itu, mendapatkan Hadiah Nobel Perdamaian tahun 2007. Berjuta-juta penonton akan selalu ingat suaranya:

“Anda pandang sungai yang lembut mengalir melintasi itu. Anda perhatikan daun berkerisik pada angin. Anda dengar suara burung; anda dengar katak pohon. Di kejauhan ada lenguh seekor lembu. Anda rasakan rerumputan itu….Hening; damai. Dan tiba-tiba, ada yang bergerak berubah dalam diri anda. Rasanya seperti menarik nafas dalam-dalam dan berbisik, “Ah, ya, aku telah lupa semua ini.”

Kata-kata itu tak istimewa, sebenarnya. Tapi mau tak mau, bersama itulah hasrat Lorca, “kumau engkau hijau,” menemukan makna dan wibawa lain. “Hijau” telah jadi hasrat untuk menggapai sesuatu yang terasa begitu menggerakkan hati tapi tak hadir: bumi yang tak rusak oleh polusi dan keserakahan.

“Hijau”, melalui proses percakapan dan pergulatan kepentingan, berangsur-angsur telah jadi kepentingan umum. Ia jadi pesan yang universal.

Dalam arti tertentu, di sini telah berlangsung “globalisasi” yang berbeda dengan globalisasi kapital, justru ketika bangunan global satu-satunya ini terancam musnah. Kini yang diserukan Barbara Ward dan René Dubos dalam buku mereka yang terkenal, Only One Earth (dalam bahasa Indonesia, Hanya Satu Bumi), yang ditulis buat Konferensi PBB di Stockholm di tahun 1972, mendapatkan pendengar. Pelbagai identitas yang berbeda-beda – yang ditandai nama negara, bangsa, kelompok etnis, kelas sosial, gender — berada dalam posisi setara, di bulatan bumi yang satu, di sebutir planet yang genting.

Di saat seperti ini, identitas makin tak bisa berlaku seperti benteng tertutup. Dalam diri tiap negara, atau bangsa, atau kelompok etnis, atau kelas, atau gender, ada anasir yang akan membuka diri ke luar, memahami nasib “hanya satu bumi” ini. Tapi ada juga yang justru akan melihat “hanya satu bumi” hanyalah ilusi; mereka akan kembali menutup pintu, bersiaga. Dengan kata lain, “globalisasi” kecemasan ini tak berarti akan menghasilkan sebuah dunia yang tanpa konflik – tak peduli betapa bersemangat, tulus, dan sopannya para kepala negara berbicara di Bali.

Tapi tak bisakah kita berharap? Saya kira bisa. Justru kini harapan lebih punya sandaran ketimbang di masa lampau.

Dulu pesan yang universal itu datang secara menakutkan dan mencurigakan, seperti ketika Eropa mengkristenkan orang Amerika Selatan atau ketika “Pencerahan”-nya mengubah muka bumi dengan kolonialisme dan “kemajuan” — yang sebenarnya satu ekspansi “peradaban” sekelompok manusia ke kelompok-kelompok manusia lain.

Kini, apa yang universal adalah sebuah utopia hijau melawan kematian – yakni kematian yang akan mengenai siapa saja. Juga melawan ketidak-adilan, karena mereka yang kaya adalah yang paling merusak bumi, sementara yang miskin akan jadi korban pertama kali. Walhasil, pesan yang universal kali ini datang bukan dari si kuasa, tapi praktis dari siapa saja yang hidup di bawah lapisan ozon yang berlubang, cemas kehilangan.

Kini aku bukan diriku
Rumahku bukan rumahku
Biarkan aku sebentar naik ke beranda tinggi
Biarkan aku pergi! Biarkan aku naik
Ke beranda hijau
Tempat air bergema pelan
Di balustrada bulan

~(Edisi revisi dari) Majalah Tempo Edisi. 41/XXXVI/03 – 9 Desember 2007~

Malaysia-Indonesia Relations: What’s Happening, Syed Hamid?

By Din Merican

It is common knowledge among friends and aficionados of Indonesia here in Malaysia that our relations with the largest Muslim democracy in the world has turned sour since Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took office in 2003. We appear to have taken our Indonesian friends for granted and are a constant source of irritation and angst.

It is true that during the premiership of Tun Dr. Mahathir, Malaysia-Indonesia relations have at times been rather strained because both former President Suharto and the Tun are strong personalities, both seeking to play a dominant role in ASEAN, OIC and NAM, but it was still manageable. Today, despite claims by Badawi that he and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono enjoy strong and close fraternal relations, tensions between the two ASEAN states have reached a point of crisis.

Outstanding issues remained unresolved and Malaysia is being perceived by Indonesians, in particular the free and independent media like magazine Tempo, as arrogant and “too big for its own shoes”. What is our hang-up(s)? Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who is a popular political icon and frequent visitor to the reform-driven and proud Republic, informed me the other day that Malaysia must manage our relations with Indonesia with a high level of sophistication and deep understanding of Indonesia’s history, arts and culture, and the people. We cannot deal with Indonesia on the basis of arrogance and bloody-mindedness.

We must realise that Indonesia is a rich and emerging ASEAN regional power. Although ASEAN concept is based on the concept of equal partnership, we are not equal in all respects.

I think, Foreign Minister Syed Hamid and his team in Wisma Putra must explain to us why they have allowed our relations with Indonesia to deteriorate. At one stage, we nearly went to war with our serumpun over the Ambalat issue. There is no point of Badawi Government trying to cover-up when things are not progressing well in our relations with Indonesia. In stead, we show our determination to resolve our outstanding issues with them so that good relations with this regional giant can be restored and subsequently raised to a higher level.

We must launch a massive public relations campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Indonesian people. For starters, we should send one of our outstanding diplomats (only a few of them are left in Wisma Putra) to serve as our Ambassador in Jakarta, and beef up our mission in Jakarta. The time for change has come, and we must deal with Indonesia with a sense of realism. Together, Malaysia and Indonesia can do a lot together in ASEAN, trade and investment.

Bakri Musa: Higher Education

It is a sure sign that local leaders are way over their heads (or refuse to makethe tough decisions) when they start calling in expensive international consultants.This is the case with Higher Education Minister Mustapa Mohamad’s commissioning(together with the Economic Planning Unit of the Prime Minister’s Department) the World Bank that resulted in its report: Malaysia and the World Economy: Building a World-Class Higher Education System.

You can be certain that the report, 18 months in the making, was not cheap. Thatwould be just the beginning. Consultants have a knack of making themselves indispensable, so expect even greater expenses when they are called in to help implement their recommendations.

Yet for all the expertise, wealth of data, and impressive comparative statistics presented in this 285-page report, itsrecommendations are nothing new or original. These include, among others, granting greater autonomy, meritocracy,both in admitting students and recruiting faculty, rationalising the role of the private sector, and emphasis on science, technology, and research.

What we lack is the political will to make the tough necessary decisions to implement them. Unfortunately no foreign experts no matter how skillful their powers of persuasion are can help in this arena. My only hope is that as those recommendations now carry the World Bank’s imprimatur, the natives are more likely to listen.

World Bank’s Report

The Report is conveniently divided into two parts. The first addresses or “diagnoses” the various issues like governance and financing, quality matters, graduate unemployment, and the integration of universities with the national innovation system.Itbegins by “benchmarking” Malaysia against selected OECD and East Asian countries. No marks for guessing where we stand; we are not even in the same league. For example, less than half the faculty at the University of Malaya, supposedly the nation’s premier, has terminal qualifications as compared to over 98 percent at Canada’s McGill.

The only point I see in making such obviously glaring comparisons is to wake up our leaders who are smugly satisfied as they are forever comparing Malaysia with the likes of Zimbabwe.

The specific recommendations are in the second part of the report.The Report rightly highlights the universal dilemma of quality versus quantity with the democratisation of higher education. One solution, which I recommend in my bookAn Education System Worthy of Malaysia would be to emulate California’s tiered model.

Malaysia has adopted some aspects of this by designating selected institutions as “research universities.” Designating alone is not enough and would be counterproductive unless accompanied by other changes, like much greater autonomy and considerably increased funding.

The beauty of the Californian system is that there are enough commonalities and clearly defined channels to enable student to switch from one system to the other.This flexibility is necessary to accommodate changes in students’ plans.

Also notable with the Californian system is that each campus enjoys considerable autonomy, including choosing its own students and faculty. The central office serves only administrative functions like dealing with the legislature and managing the faculty’s pension plans. In Malaysia, the ministry micromanages every campus, right down to choosing the color of the faculty lounge drapes. I wish the Report would emphasise this point.

As University of Malaya Law Professor Azmi Sharom observed, if we really love our universities, we must free them. I would further suggest that Higher EducationMinister Mustapa should listen more to professors like Azmi Sharom and less to Umno Youth leaders, or even World Bank’s experts.

Problems with International data

The report is inundated with cross-national statistics. While it is good to compare ourselves against others, we must first however be assured that we are using the same measuring stick. This is easier said than done.

Take the apparently straightforward data on years of schooling. This seemingly objective criterion is anything but. One does not have to be particularly perceptive to note that nine years of schooling in South Korea would produce a far superior graduate as compared to someone with many more years spent at an American inner city school. Likewise with comparing nominal figures on expenditures per student; a dollar at the University of Malaya would go a long way as compared to at the University of California.

If we are not careful we could be easily misled; we would then be better off without those statistics. At least a dead clock tells the right time twice a day; a malfunctioning clock never. Likewise with data; bad data is more damaging than no data. A bad compass is worse than no compass. With the latter you would not be misled, and you learn to use your senses.

Studies done on OECD countries indicate that it is not so much the years of schooling that matter with respect to labor productivity rather the workers’ actual language and mathematical skills. Harvard’s Robert Barro shows that it is not just any education system that enhances economic development rather one that emphasizes the sciences, technology and mathematics that is crucial. This is clearly demonstrated in Malaysia. The government’s oft stated goal of 60:40 ratio favoring students in the science stream remains just that: a goal. More important than focusing on this thus far unattainable objective would be to raise the mathematical skills and science literacy of all our students. Most American universities require all their students to take a year of science and mathematics.

Malaysian data indicate that Malays have more years of schooling and fewer dropouts than non-Malays, in particular the Chinese. Yet the economic performance of Malays lags that of Chinese. The reason is obvious. The education of Malays is heavy on arts and religion; Chinese, science and technology. When Chinese students drop out, they work for their parents’ enterprises, be they mom-and-pop retail stores or roadside hawker stalls, where they learn important lessons of economics and life generally far more effectively than at school. Malay students would hang around waiting for government jobs.

The only lesson they would learn in such an environment is that the world owes them a living.There is however one comparative statistics worth noting: tuition fees differential between public and private institutions. In Malaysia it is about ten-fold whereas in America it is about a 3 to 5- fold difference. I would narrow this by increasing tuition at public universities, coupled with more generous students aid. This would generate more revenue as well as reduce the subsidy for rich students.

Timid report

The Report soft-pedals two separate but interrelated crucial issues: one, the dangerous racial segregation of educational institutions at all levels; and two, the intrusive as well as destructive role of politics, in particular language nationalism. The Bank advocates the giving of scholarships for students to attend private institutions as one way of making them reflect the greater Malaysian society.

I would go further and make it a condition for granting of permits. I agree with the Bank that we should treat private and pubic institutions equally with regard to awarding research funds and other grants. If these institutions are doing good research and performing useful societal functions, what difference does it make whether they are public or private? Politics underlie most if not all the problems of our education system. While it is impossible to divorce politics (institutions ultimately must respond to the political realities) nonetheless once certain objectives are agreed upon by the body politic,then let the professionals take over in implementing them.

Take the teaching of science and mathematics in English and the general need to enhance the English proficiency of our students. This decision was made at the highest political level, yet at the slightest obstacle in implementing, an otherwise sensible policy was reversed. It is such a flip-flopping that is so destructive. The World Bank should have been more forceful in presenting its recommendations and in highlighting what ails our education system. Had the Bank done so it would have encouraged the many voices for reform from within. That might just nudge these politicians and bureaucrats to take the necessary bold steps.


By Salleh Ben Joned

I re-read a book containing the writings of my Subang Jaya (he tells me that he lives in “Sumbang Jaya”) friend, Salleh Ben Joned, a poet, writer and social commentator last night. It was published by Times Editions-Marshall Cavendish, Singapore in 2004. The title of this book, AS I PLEASE, reflects the character of Ben Joned, who is unafraid to call a spade a spade.

Well known Malaysian author, Adibah Amin, has this say about Ben Joned’s book in her Afterword: “The variety is tremendous, as is the energy, which explodes barriers between East and West, mind and feeling, the spirit and the flesh, the sacred and the profane. The overwhelming impression is of a free spirit that rebels against deadening conventions in a passionate celebration of life”.

I have chosen a piece from AS I PLEASE on Isako San. Although they are of different generations, Pak Sako and Ben Joned are rebels of sort. I feel I am in good company. If you want change, you have to challenge conventional wisdom and think outside the box. It is tough, I know, but you must have the courage to do what is right. Otherwise, our country will wallow in mediocrity. Here is to creativity, courage and the dignity of difference and here is to Pak Sako and my friend, Ben Joned.

As we approach the end of 2007 and usher in a challenging 2008, I deem it appropriate to take the time to reflect on what it would take to bring about change in Malaysia (Malaya—Freedom in Tagalog– pre-1963).

Ben Joned wrote his piece on November 13, 1991 with the title “In Memoriam- Isako San.”–Din Merican

Ben Joned begins his tribute to Pak Sako:

I can’t claim to know him well personally, just enough to know that his kind is rare and his death a sad loss. Dato’ Ishak Haji Muhammad, journalist and novelist, and nationalist oddball, better known as Pak Sako. I remember well and quite fondly the two novels on which his literary reputation rests and also his spicy and entertaining columns in Utusan Malaysia (a leading Malay daily) and Gila-Gila. The man himself I’d met only only two or three times. The first time was about seven years ago, when he came to Universiti Malaya, where I was then teaching. We met in the famous Baccha’s canteen in the Arts Faculty.

Pak Sako

I had long wondered if the writer in person would be as interesting as his writings and rumours one heard about him. It is a pleasure to report that the answer was yes. I was struck, though, by something that the rumours concerning his political and literary antics, both past and present, didn’t quite lead me to expect. He was soft spoken and wasn’t at all provocative in what he was saying. Perhaps it was the academic environment that made him seemingly reticent that day. But I was sure that the reticence had an eloquence of its own; he was obviously watching the academic scene and the pretensions of the puffed-up little minds there. I certainly thought I saw a glint of impish irony in his eyes. I was also struck by the smartness of his dress; a fashionable bush jacket, no less. “Did they say he was a ‘bohemian’”? I murmured to myself; the “rolling stone” who was justifiably proud of the fact that he had not gathered any moss? But that bush jacket which, I was told, he sometimes wore with a stylish cravat, didn’t quite mock his reputation as a plain-speaking and plain-living champion of the common people.

The image of Pak Sako as a dashing frequenter of cabarets, and later as the “dandy” of Chow Kit Road and resident wit of the New Hotel in Jalan Raja Muda was nurtured by the same source as that which fed his passion for life, and for freedom and justice without which that life would have been meaningless. He always liked to keep in touch with the common people, but there was nothing about him that was even remotely like the self-conscious middle-class poseur compelled for ideological reasons to go slumming among the rakyat.

He may have been soft-spoken but his speech, like his writings, was often spiced with sharp and earthly wit, his famous humour salaciously sly, nicely vulgar, and his notorious scepticism of people and politicians always wryly ironic, quite often given an added punch by a fitting pepatah (maxim) or pantun (four-line Malay verse). He was a traditional Malay enough to be compulsively fond of the pepatah and the pantun. He even had a column called “Pepatah Petitih”in a popular humour magazine Gila-Gila,a magazine aggressively commited to youth and hedonism, and that the old man enthusiastically accepted the invitation to be a gila-gila (literally “mad-mad”, i.e. eccentric) columnist speaks volumes for his natural talent for being at home in any generation, and to be the bridge between the old and the young.

Many of his surviving comrades and proteges, like Pak Samad Ismail, consider him a “typical Malay”, but in the best generously open sense of that ambiguous phrase. As a good “typical Malay”, he was earth-bound, kampong (village)-rooted but very far from being a Melayu with a katak-bawah-tempurang (frog under a coconut shell) mentality, either personally or ideologically. He was the type of Malay nationalist whose concern for his race was informed by a breadth and generosity of vision; his native intelligence and instinctive lust for life, if nothing else, made it easy for him to laugh at the rhetoric of chauvinism. He could number many non-Bumis among his friends and admirers: even Lim Kit Siang (the leading Chinese opposition leader) became his champion in Parliament.

It was basic commonsense and instinctive humanity in him, not abstract idealism, which made him stress the need for mutual tolerance, respect and concern among the races of this country. Typically, he would remind his fellow Malaysians of the obviousness of this need by making a light suggestive joke about it or illustrating his point with a tellingly earthy and risible anecdote culled from his own rich experience of life. Like that marvellous story he told in a speech at the gathering held in his honour at Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka in 1987.

In 1948, so the story goes, he was in a small party of detainees being transported from Taiping to the police station in the then Campbell Road, Kuala Lumpur. There was somehow a shortage of handcuffs, and Pak Sako had to share one with a fellow detainee who happended to be a non-Malay. Well, you know what it would be like travelling long distance chained to another person; you would have no choice but to be together all the time and everywhere—including the intimate moments when the call of nature is simply irresistible. As a parable of man being bound together by common humanity despite the difference of race, I can’t think of a better story than that; only Pak Sako could tell it the way he did that night at Dewan Bahasa.

Pak Sako, yes. My 10-year old daughter said the name sounded like Ajinomoto when we read the news of his death last Friday; and how right she was. Sako, as fans of the old man should know, is from Isako, which was the way the name Ishak was made euphonically tolerable for the Japanese tongue. Isako later became Pak Sako, thanks to Ishak Haji Muhammad’s journalist friends. The “I” was dropped and substituted with “Pak”.–and that natural process of repossession of a name made alien by the tongue of a former enemy carried a small but suggestive symbolic significance. The softness and the sense of familiarity of “Pak” as normally spoken by the Malays, and its connotation of spontaneous respect and easy but concretely felt sense of solidarity, kampung-kind and rooted in the common earth—yes, its rather nicely symbolic that out of “Isako” came Pak Sako.

I’ve always thought that the besy way to honour the memory of someone like Pak Sako is to re-read his books. The two novels, Anak Mat Lela Gila and Putera Gunung Tahan, certainly can bear re-reading after a lapse of a few years, if only to appreciate once again the satirical wit of Pak Sako, a wit which is quite rare in modern Malay literature. Yes, go back to his books –and stop dribbling about a great man and writer he was. The chorus of inane praise that greeted the old man’s death was typically and quite sickeningly Malay. Having failed to give the man adequate appreciation for his service to the nation when he was alive, we overcompensate by cheapening the words “great” or “giant”in calling him “a great writer” or “ a literary giant. Pak Sako himself would have been utterly embarassed by such chorus of katak bawah tempurung.

I can imagine him, still disoriented by the darkness of darkness, turning in his new grave with embarassment for the inanity of his people. I can imagine him saying to the two black angels with green eyes, Munkar and Nakir, sent to question him about matters of faith. “Listen to them up there! Calling me ‘great writer’, ‘Literary giant’ and what other nonsense! My people, they’ve infected my name with their own lack of proper modesty and sense of proportion. When I was among them, most of them could only bitch and be envious…I wanted to teach them pride, proper pride and faith in themselves, with due sense of realism and proportion…Now look at them! They make me feel I’ve failed miserably.”

Doctrine of Separation of Powers

Wee Loon,

Thanks for sending me this piece (below) from your fellow medical student who is now in Dublin, Ireland. I am pleased that young Malaysians are thinking about our country. Let us hope other young Malaysians will be ready to write and express their views. I am happy to host their articles/commentaries on this blog.

Greetings of the season to all. 2008 is likely to be a very tough year given the state of the US economy and the after effects of the floods in certain parts of our country. Of course, you can expect our mainstream media including television to tell us that Malaysia is fine, quoting comments from our oracle, Noh Mohamed, Minister of Finance No 2. But let us err on the side of caution and work twice as hard.

Please help our flood victims and pray for their safety.

Din Merican.


Dear Penangite,

It is amazing how many theories you have already come up within a few days.

As a citizen, you have every right to question and speculate; however, in Malaysia questioning state actions by ordinary citizens is merely ‘sembang kedai kopi’ and doesn’t go any further than that no matter how legitimate or publicly relevant they are. There are some who have taken a step further by making efforts through alternative media and by protesting in public; this method is more effective in the sense that they get more publicity, however, the state will almost always turn a deaf ear to it rendering all their efforts useless.

Then there are some among us who realize that perhaps joining dissenting voices of the opposition political parties is the most effective method of getting answers from the state to these legitimate questions. However, BN’s political monopoly (on power) means that nothing great can be achieved on that front either; occasionally, we see the opposition cornering the government by creating huge public outcries; one fine example would by DAP MP Teresa Kok’s famous disclosure of the Squatgate Scandal. But unless you can pull a stunt like that, the state would not give a damn.

This is just as far as the rakyat can go in questioning the Government on its actions.

Now, here is the critical question that we should all be asking ourselves??

How did this happen? We are a democracy, aren’t we? We have general elections every 5 years, which is reasonably fair and free(?). In a democracy, the Government serves the rakyat; government is of the people, by the people, and for the people. If they screw up, we question them and they owe us explanations. However, in this country, the Government does not owe us any explanation. It takes a hugely influential figure such as former PM Tun Mahathir to demand explanations before they even move an inch, and even that they do out of fear of political repercussions from the scathing attacks, not out of moral or legal obligation to the rakyat.

We claim to be a vibrant democracy; however, we are hardly near what a democracy should be like. In a true democracy, the people constantly keep the Government in check. And by the people I mean, just about anybody who can influence the rakyat with their ideas like politicians, academicians, social activists, environmentalists, religious leaders, novelists, actors, anyone, as long as their ideas resonate with that of others. In the US, an independent council, Kenneth Starr, led a private investigation, which led to disclosure of President Bill Clinton sex scandal, which resulted in Clinton”s impeachment. Last year, we watched how a private initiative by a group of ordinary Americans into the Iraq War scandal challenged the Bush Administration and affected the US mid-term elections.

Why aren’t we seeing this democratic culture in Malaysia? True, our democracy is not exactly a carbon copy of the US, we inherited ours from the British. However, other Commonwealth countries (there are some exceptions, of course, like Zimbabwe and recently Pakistan) that also followed the British have vibrant democracies, what happened to ours?

We have a constitution that guarantees freedom of speech for the people and which also provides means by which the Government of the day can be kept in check. The constitution, the supreme law of the land, emphasizes the rule of law, that no one is above the law, whether you are of the ruling party or of royal blood. This keeps the Government in check and prevents the excesses of power that we are seeing today in our country.

So, what went wrong? Ok, one might say that our lack of a strong and credible opposition might be the cause. But is it really? Is it true that a government, which controls the house of parliament, could rule the country as it pleases and avoid being held responsible for their actions by the people? That seems to be the scenario in Malaysia today, but is it truly the cause or something else must have gone wrong?

If it was the cause, then the so-called constitution that guarantees us freedom must be a pretty crappy one.

This is a matter of opinion though, but I do not think that the people who sat down 50 years ago to plan the future of our nation screwed up. They did their best and came up with a written social contract, the Constitution, that they hoped would ensure that we never deviated from the path that was set, a path towards a free, tolerant and respected nation even if the ship had to change its captain after every generation.

Things did not go according to plan. The ship was hijacked by an ambitious captain who believed only in doing things his way. I do not once question his motives; he only had the best interest of the ship and crew in mind. However, he was a Machiavellian, he believed the end justifies the means. He was shrewd and always found his away around any obstacle that stood in front of him.

The Constitution was cleverly constructed with foresight and has its means of ensuring the interest of the nation and people and was never compromised. One of the hallmarks of the Constitution was the doctrine of separation of power among three key independent institutions, the Judiciary, the Legislative, and the Executive. These three institutions act independently to keep check and balance.

The ambitious captain saw this doctrine as a major obstacle. Being a Machiavellian, he had his opponents who were constantly challenging him. He, being the captain, had complete control of one body, the Executive and substantial control of the other, the Legislature, as his ruling party made up more than 2/3rd’s of it. The Judiciary, however, was completely independent as it was meant to be. Such is the beauty of our Constitution; it is a regulating authority unto itself. All three branches check on each other so that the Executive does not overstep its constitutional mandate.

One common misconception among people, and myself too as it was the impression that my Sejarah textbook gave me, is that these bodies are exclusive and have specific duties. Like the Executive “tadbir negara”, the Legislature “gubal undang-undang” and the Judiciary “mentafsir and melaksanakan undang-undang”. This is not entirely true, it is an oversimplification. The task of governing the country is not exclusively the Executive’s but shared by among all 3 bodies. In Parliament, legislators can question, debate and reject government policies, and the Judiciary can intervene and rule government policies as illegal or unconstitutional, if it deems it as such.

The judiciary of Malaysia during when our ambitious captain took the helm was truly special. Many analysts claim that it was one of the best in the whole Commonwealth, brave and independent. The Government was repeatedly challenged; for example, in the Bank Bumiputera takeover by Petronas scandal, and a few others when the Government attempted to crackdown on the print media.

The captain was understandably frustrated, and thus in 1988, the Judiciary was attacked and the then Lord President Justice Tun Salleh Abbas and two other Supreme Court judges were removed. The captain clipped its wings and the Judiciary was no longer able to function freely. The Constitution that had safeguarded the Judiciary was amended and that was the infamous amendment to Article 121(1) that gave the Judiciary right to review state actions. The effect of the amendment is that the Judiciary is now dominated by an all powerful Executive Branch. What happened to the doctrine of separation of power? It was no more!

The Judiciary was controlled by the Executive (BN had 2/3rd’s majority in Parliament giving them full control). In an instant, the captain was suddenly almost a dictator free to do anything, uninhibited. How clever!! This had disastrous effect on the nation; in fact, I think almost every single thing that is wrong in this country was somehow linked to the 1988 Judiciary crisis.

I don’t have the time to explain all of them now; there are too many things. For example, the media lost its freedom of expression/speech protection guaranteed by the Constitution and is under absolute state control turning it into a BN propaganda machinery, corrupting the minds of Malaysians until today. The state also has absolute control over the academic institutions of the country, curtailing intellectual/academic freedom in the name of political interest which has resulted in Universiti Malaya’s drastic drop in ranking of the top universities in the world, and last year falling out of the top 100.

Corruption spiralled out of control; opposition figures were brutally suppressed; dissenting voices were sent to Kamunting(under the Internal Security Act), and we slowly became what we are now today, a Police state.

Today we watch in horror as a toothless Judiciary faisl to act to protect our rights as witnessed in the tale of M.Moorthy’s widow who was denied her fundamental basic citizenship right of seeking legal remedy.

We have no mechanism of checks and balances anymore. The state acts on our behalf and does what it think is right and we have got to accept it. If Abdullah Ahmad Badawi thinks that Islam Hadhari is best for us then we must accept it. We can disagree with him, but we know who has the final say. Of course, we have our ballot box, but the absence of a credible opposition means that Malaysians are left with no choice.

One man’s folly and greed for power costs us dearly. Everyone of us is paying the price for it today. Even Abdullah Badawi is, as evidenced in his public rantings last year. We say our politicians are corrupted, the police is corrupt, this agency, that ministry, all corrupt. Speak is all we can. We have lost the mechanism of checks and balances.

Few years back I heard opposition leader Lim Kit Siang (and others too) calling for the rakyat to vote opposition so that BN can be denied 2/3rds majority in Parliament. We have all been reduced to such a pathetic state that we now have to vote opposition not necessarily because they are a better alternative to the Government but just because we need some sort of a body to check on the Government that rules with no regard to the rule of law and public opinion. At least then, Parliament would have the teeth to act as a watchdog on our behalf. I think at the moment, this is the only realistic strategy that we have, unfortunately.

Thanks for reading. I just wanted to share a thought.