Beyond Economics– First Fix the Political Elephant in the Room

October 5, 2015

Beyond Economics:  First Fix The Politics

by Dato’Seri Nazir Razak

Nazir Razak at Khazanah Megatrends

The theme of Khazanah Megatrends this year is around “innovation” and “creative disruption.”

In the next 30 minutes I would like to share with you some personal stories and anecdotes, and perspectives about why Malaysia remains frustrated in its quest for greater creativity and innovation, risk and adventure taking, ethics and integrity in our economy, and how thinking about this problem leads me to the same conclusion as when I think of many other pressing national issues – we must address the “elephant in the room”.


As a 25-year banking veteran, I would be the first to admit that banks have been poor at supporting not just innovation, but many creative ideas.

Some who survived to tell the tale include two young Malaysians who some years ago came to see me about buying an airline for RM1 to build a regional low-cost carrier. I showed them the door very quickly and quite rudely, and was only nice to them when AirAsia was successful and going for its IPO.

Similarly, our experiments at banking start-ups and technology companies did not go well. Banks are by definition conservative, highly regulated and staffed with bankers.

In the mid-1990s, in response to the perceived lack of access to capital for technology start-ups, I was asked to chair the “Industry Action Committee” to set up Mesdaq, the Malaysian Nasdaq.

Even before we had venture capital and proven technology companies, we decided to set up a stock exchange. And lots of money was spent on the new exchange when really it should have just been another board at Bursa; it would have been a far cheaper failed experiment. Till today, I regret not saying no to this project, but it was a good early lesson for me and probably why I do find it hard to keep my mouth shut.

As banks and the capital markets fell short, the government availed lots of money for technology and start-ups in general. Funds like MTDC and several venture companies were seeded by the government. Money itself has never been the problem. The problem was that we never had the institutional capabilities to allocate the money effectively, bias as we were to local intermediaries who lacked experience and networks, and prone as we were to proliferating agencies rather than building large institutions with economies of scale and partnerships with international experience and networks.

Today however, I do think that from a capital standpoint, there is much less frustration on the part of budding entrepreneurs and creative disrupters. Equinas, for instance, has scale and leverages professional fund managers well.

GLICs have evolved to apply best international standards in investing and now hire – and pay – a much better cadre of professionals for themselves and at investee companies. There has also been a proliferation of private equity and venture capitalists to supplant banks and offer more effective risk and reward structures.

There is room for improvement, of course. I would like to see more funds made available to smaller companies and more focus on how to encourage large GLICs to better support small companies or small deals.

I would also urge that we look at how to make it less punitive for banks to become investors in PE funds given the difference in the needs of our emerging economy versus the more developed markets where these new rules are being written.

Mentoring and international perspectives

Innovation is about three things – insight, idea and implementation. Beyond capital, entrepreneurs need guidance to help them build their ventures. Malaysia has had Technology Park Malaysia and others, and lately MaGIC, with varying degrees of success.

I feel that one thing lacking has been the international element to mentoring. It is unrealistic to think of building sustainable businesses based purely on domestic dynamics in this era of Asean economic integration and an increasingly borderless world.

This is why a few other individuals and I set up the not-for-profit organisation Endeavour Malaysia in 2013. In partnership with Endeavour Worldwide we search for entrepreneurs via a rigorous selection and interview process by first the local management, then the local board and finally the international Endeavour board.

Successful entrepreneurs are badged “Endeavour”, allocated local and international mentors, and are given access an international network of businesses – about 1,100 Endeavour companies worldwide.

Endeavour Worldwide is all about successful business people eager to give back by supporting new entrepreneurs. It does take an entrepreneur to know one and it takes knowledge from all over the world to assess the prospects of the best ideas.

Local mentors for Malaysian Endeavour companies include my co-founders Afzal Rahim, Mark Chang, Brahmal Vasudevan and Tony Fernandes.

Endeavour’s “mentor capitalist” model has worked extremely well in Latin America, where its biggest success story is MercadoLibre, the eBay equivalent. Marcos Galperin started the company in 1999 and was selected by Endeavour that year itself.

He expanded the business across the continent and the company is now listed on the Nasdaq with a market cap of about US$4 billion. Marcos is the perfect example of how a high-impact entrepreneur can have an outsized impact on the ecosystem around him or her. He subsequently became a founder and board member of Endeavour as well role model, mentor or direct investor in a whole string of emerging companies.

I hope that we can rapidly add to the six Endeavour companies that we have so far, but overall Malaysian entrepreneurs now have reasonable choice of ecosystems to help them.

Beyond economics

If we define access to capital and ecosystems as economics, then I would say we have over the years largely addressed the economic issues, but there is still no real breakthrough.

Recent data shows national productivity growth slowing down from 2.7% between 2006 and 2010 to 2.1% between 2011 and 2014. And other worrying data points include the story of two recent big Malaysian innovation success stories – GrabTaxi and HappyFresh – they started in KL but have effectively moved to Singapore and Indonesia for various reasons.

When I asked several entrepreneurs whether if given the choice they would choose to be based in Malaysia, most said no, and those who said yes tended to strongly espouse their nationalistic sentiment. Even though it is just my crude dipstick survey, it is worrying because we are at risk of losing the best companies that we nurture.

So I asked those who said they would move away what their concerns are, without fail, they go beyond economics to the big picture, and relate not just their own concerns but perception of their potential international financiers and partners.

Role of the government

The heavy presence of government in the economy is one issue they highlight. We have spoken and agreed ad nauseam in various other platforms about reducing government involvement in business, yet the data from the past few years show quite the opposite.

Even more important is the role of government in overseeing business competition – the rules of the game in each sector. Much of this has been covered in the New Economic Model, and we are making progress with the Government Transformation Programme (GTP) and Aviation Commission, for instance. But much, much more needs to be done.

The more sensitive area of concern is the perception that people or businesses are not equal before the government and even when one can accept preferential treatment based on our affirmative action policy, the rules are often not clear. Added to that is a culture of top down decision-making, even in the sphere of innovation.

Let me share with you one personal anecdote. In 2004, I was appointed to the board of the infamous InventQjaya, set up by a self-described genius innovator, generously funded by the government with cash and a super smart building in Cyberjaya.

I joined two other independent directors, Tan Sri Shahril Shamsuddin and Datuk Sidek Ahmad. From early on, we sensed things were not right and when we conducted our own technical due diligence there were a lot of question marks around the intellectual property the company had expensively acquired from the genius innovator’s own company back in the US.

The turning point for me was when he showed us his “killer invention” – a glass window which would turn opaque at the touch of a button. Well, massage parlours in Korea had had them for years – so I was told!

Shahril and Sidek, who were both more literate in science than me, also found other dubious inventions. So finally, together with MoF official Datuk Rahim Mokti, we decided that enough was enough, we had to do the right thing.

Truth be told, if we knew how painful blowing the whistle was going to be, I’m not sure if we would have done it!

Etched in my memory is the day Shahril and I went to report the case at the A-G’s chamber. After spending a couple of hours showing all the evidence, the officer calmly asked “Did you bring your toothbrush?”

He said, based on his experience, people who make accusations are often the real crooks so perhaps he should detain us! So then we spent another couple of hours explaining that it wasn’t us –thankfully, we were convincing enough.

After triggering the institutional processes, we were advised that we had to see and explain ourselves to Tun (Dr) Mahathir who had firmly backed the project. After the A-G Chamber experience, we were too afraid so we ran to the master salesman Tan Sri Nor Yakcop and begged him to carry the news for us. I was told Tan Sri Nor did a splendid job, Tun agreed that we were doing the right thing and we were safe.

The authorities never managed to build the legal case against the inventor. A lot of money was wasted, but a great deal more would have been lost had we, the directors appointed by the government, not done our fiduciary duty and been willing to tell truth to power.

I have never fully traced the history of how and why InventQjaya started, but I was told it was by navigating the corridors of power and convincing the PM. Tun’s idea of a government-backed R&D centre was good, the problem was how it was implemented.

There could have been a tender open to scientists across the globe, for instance, as opposed to one man’s full trust in another who went on to liberally use the threat of his access to power to get his way.

I am sure there are other similar stories. So we need to recalibrate how the corridors of power work, re-establish processes and reaffirm institutional checks and balances. Over the years, power has become too concentrated and system checks and balances are not functioning as they should.

Human capital and education

Another issue that the entrepreneurs highlighted was human capital.I will not delve into education reform as many of our finest, Tan Sri Azman, Tan Sri Zarinah Anwar, Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah and Tony were part of the National Education System Evaluation Panel set up in 2011, and from what I gather, the issues are well-understood.

There is of course plenty of research that show correlation between national propensity to innovate and the right educational policies. It’s the political realities of education reform that seem to have held us back. On the wider issue of talent retention or drain itself, again much has been discussed via TalentCorp, etc, but then when I speak to the brightest overseas Malaysians, the most often cited reasons for not coming home are socio-political.

Politics–The Elephant in the Room

The elephant in the room is politics and the socio-economic structures that have evolved in tandem over the years. As we have seen over the last two general elections, the dominant political party system that we have had since independence is at risk.

While we can point to many other countries where the transition to a multi-party system happens peacefully, Malaysia has a unique and complex with a potentially toxic mix of race and religion deeply embedded in the political system, so we can’t take that for granted.

Meanwhile, crucial reform proposals by many of our cleverest people like the NEAC which presented the NEM that proposed major structural reforms, have been frozen by politics.

I won’t try to predict the consequences of continuing with the current trajectory of Malaysian politics. But I will predict that if we don’t undertake major structural reform of our socio-economy soon, we may well lose the international economics game.

Way forward

I propose that we go back in history. Not to the early, joyous, optimistic days of the initial post-Merdeka years.

Instead, let’s travel back to the devastating blow we suffered on May 13, 1969 – a day of infamy in our short history as a nation. A day that punctured our innocent idealism and introduced us to the Hobbesian nature of reality.

In the wake of that tragic and horrific blood-letting, the government declared emergency rule and set up a National Operations Council led by Tun Razak to run the country after Parliament was suspended indefinitely.

Eight months later in January 1970, Tun Razak chaired the first National Consultative Council, or NCC, meeting to examine the ethnic, political, economic and cultural sparks that provoked the May 13 episode and undermined national unity.

The NCC’s members consisted of just three ministers – Tun Dr Ismail, Tun Tan Siew Sin and Tun Sambanthan – as well as representatives from state governments, members of religious establishments, professional bodies, unions, teachers associations and political parties – a balanced representation of the population.

The NCC’s deliberations over a few months produced two extremely significant documents that guided our nation in the post-May 13 years: the New Economic Policy or NEP, and the Rukunegara.

Parliament was subsequently reinstated while the NEP spurred the growth of the government’s involvement in business with the establishment of many agencies to facilitate the rebalancing of wealth among ethnic groups and poverty eradication initiatives, with considerable success. The NEP epitomised what this conference is all about – innovation, creative disruption and inclusivity.

So, here we are today.  The NEP that was set to be a 20-year programme remains 44 years on, albeit in a much mutated form. In the meantime, the world and our place in it have changed, not least with the advent of the knowledge economy and the shift in economic power from large corporates and institutions to individual talent and entrepreneurship. The near future looks even scarier as articulated this morning by Charles Leadbeater.

Supply chains have shifted dramatically and creative disruptors flourish in economies where vested interests are not protected by governments and politics. Is our economic system substantially designed in the 1970s able to cope with the demands of today?

We all seem to know major reforms are needed – there is already much good literature on reforms from the government itself – but implementation has been trapped by realpolitik. Recent events are surely symptoms of systemic strain.

I believe that just as in the post-May 13 era, we are now facing a national challenge. Back then, the fundamental issue was national unity. Today, in the 21st century, the parameters have widened. National unity and the forging of a Malaysian identity are still very much works in progress. But added to them are a plethora of problems ranging from the ethical to the practical, and even our quest to spur innovation and creative destruction leads us to this fundamental national challenge.

We urgently need a new social and economic re-engineering programme to suit today’s challenges and for today’s Malaysians. My humble suggestion is this: the time is ripe for the setting up of a council similar to the NCC. Let’s call it the National Consultative Council 2 or NCC2.

To borrow a leaf from history, let us once again bring together the best and brightest among us Malaysians to huddle and deliberate our options. Let the NCC2 be no different from the first NCC in terms of participation from all members of our Malaysian society.

Its membership should be inclusive, its deliberations wide-ranging, and its reports succinct and practical to implement. And it should be led by someone or some people with the moral authority to bring the good and the great to the table for the sake of the nation’s new future.

My own ideas on how the NCC2 would function are still evolving. Offhand, I would suggest the setting up of six panels to deliberate on the following critical issues, namely:

1) Constitutional reforms;

2) Electoral reforms;

3) Economic reforms-affirmative action, role of government;

4) National unity and the social contract;

5) Preserving and strengthening the integrity of the federation; and

6) Institutional integrity – checks and balances between various branches of government and within government itself.

I make no apologies for adopting NCC from my late father. As I have written earlier, he was a Malaysian to the core, a public servant to the extreme definition of that. I believe his legacy of an inclusive, deliberative, and Malaysian vision and identity, is even more relevant today than it was in the dark days after May 13.


As I said at the start of my speech, there are adults who consider my views on current affairs as unsuitable. And they will look for 1,001 motives behind my suggestion of NCC2 instead of what I have just articulated. That is their prerogative.

Just as it is my prerogative to say we can and must opt for national – politics, economics and social – recalibration. We have to address the elephant in the room. Malaysia needs innovative and creative disruption of a national scale to spur innovation and creative disruption in our economy. Malaysia also needs innovative and creative disruption of a national scale to secure our future and realise the true potential of our great nation. We have done it before, we must do it again.

* Datuk Seri Nazir Razak is chairman of CIMB Group. This is his speech at the Khazanah Megatrends Forum in Kuala Lumpur today.

Building a well formed mind: Dr. Shashi Tharoor

October 1, 2015

Dr. Shashi Tharoor On Education

Listen to Dr. Tharoor, an eloquent Educator and maybe we can begin to learn about a well formed mind.

Right now, we teach children by example of the present leadership that cash is king and there is nothing wrong about accepting bribes or becoming a crony or a proxy of some corrupt politician like Dr. Khir Toyo, former Menteri Besar of Selangor who is in Kajang as guest of Duli Yang Maha Mulia Yang DiPertuan Agong. Once a powerful man, Dr. Khir is now a felon who must pay the price for being utterly corrupt. There are still a lot of politicians out there who have yet to suffer the same fate as our convicted broom giver.

It is time we start thinking outside the box and come out with innovative ways of educating our young and showing them ways to lead meaningful and ethical lives. As Socrates said, lead an examined life. Only those engaged in the continual struggle to clarify their thinking and remove the clutter, confusion and incoherence can be said to live free and worthwhile lives. But not all of us are great thinkers or philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

The majority of us like me are simple folks who seek to lead a happy life, taking the good with the bad and overcoming adversity by staying always on the side of the affirmative and rejecting the negative and anything in between like the late Sam Berns.

Sam Berns was a Junior at Foxboro High School in Foxboro, Massachusetts, where he  achieved highest honors and was a percussion section leader in the high school marching band. He achieved the rank of Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America. Sam was diagnosed with Progeria, a rare, rapid aging disease, at the age of 2. Listen to him. –Din Merican

Mr Transformation Blues stays on as Pemandu Chief

September 9, 2015

COMMENT: I respect his decision to stay on as Pemandu Chief. In the face of a gathering economic storm,  his presence at Pemandu will keep the team he assembled in tact to carry on the tasks he sought out to do over the last six years.

din and kamsiah at klinik2As a spokesperson, Dato’Jala has done a good job for the government. It was a difficult one. I for one would admit that transforming Malaysia is a huge assignment. He has been like a captain of an oil tanker was ordered to make a quick change in direction. It is even tougher when he is serving a Prime Minister who lost our trust and confidence. 

The question I want to ask him is this: now that you have decided to press on with your transformation agenda, will it be more of the same, or will you change your implementation strategies in the light of difficult times ahead?

It is not about cherry picking. Life is unfair as the late President John F. Kennedy said. Malaysian critics in particular will attack you in areas where you are most vulnerable. Engage them intelligently since they are not enemy; they are stakeholders.

Today, it is all about our economy. It is about getting our country out of an economic mess created by your boss. Expect more, not less bricks thrown at you and your team. Remember that you are no longer in the Cabinet. As a CEO, your task will be a harrowing one since you are no longer part of policy making. You know well that Malaysia is all about politics. In this case, it is going to the politics of regime survival in the face of mounting public pressure on Prime Minister Najib Razak to resign.

So, Dato’Jala, your persistence and courage under fire are admirable. May you continue and finish what you had set out to do, but I hope that having learned the lessons of managing change over the last 6 years, you know how to do it differently. Do not over cook things. Just speak the truth. -Din Merican

Mr Transformation Blues stays on as Pemandu Chief to face a gathering storm

by Idris Jala

All said and done, one thing I know for certain – in life you cannot cherry-pick. It comes with the good, the bad and the ugly. But it is our own volition how we choose to live it, to have the willingness and faith to make a difference for the better. I am hopeful that when the upside comes, we will stand strong and ready to catch that ride.–Idris Jala

idris jalaDURING my childhood growing up in the Kelabit longhouse, my father – always the teacher – would use the word “ketui” to spur me on. Meaning “burning desire to win”, he did not accept half-measures and lukewarm efforts. He was adamant I embody the burning desire, especially when the going got tough.

After serving for six years as Senator in the Prime Minister’s Department, I attended my final Cabinet meeting two weeks ago. The Federal Constitution has a two-term limit for Senatorship, bar none. As I have absolutely no political ambitions, that route in presuming any extension as a Minister has always been closed.

At that session, I was especially overwhelmed by the gracious remarks made by the Prime Minister. As in any epic journey, he was clear we cannot stop midstream. He asked that I continue in my role as CEO of Pemandu, and to see to the successful conclusion of our national transformation programmes.

For months, I agonised over the decision of continuing as CEO of Pemandu or moving on to other pursuits. You can imagine the predicament as many people reminded me about the “trust deficit” in Government, telling me to leave.

There are two ways to drive transformation – via external transformational push for a change of Government or an internal transformation from within. I joined the Government because I felt I could contribute, in a small way, towards our transformation journey.

Our achievements as a country over the last six years are well documented in the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) and Government Transformation Programme (GTP) Annual Reports. Though we made progress, we still have some ways to go. The question I grappled with was simple: Given the current problems and controversies, can the ETP and GTP programmes continue?

The answer is an unequivocal YES. Current conditions should not stop us from implementing programmes that will benefit the economy and rakyat. For example, we still need to attract investments, build the MRT and rural roads. Reforms, both fiscal and educational, must endure. The fight against crime and corruption never ceases.

Instead of caving in to despair, I see a silver lining. Percolating issues give us the impetus to push certain things. Getting all political parties to accept reforms on political financing, just as we proposed under the GTP in 2010 is one example. That is why I agreed to work with Dato’ Paul Low who is heading the reform committee on political funding.

Hence, I have decided not to abandon ship in the face of a storming sea. I admit to another motivating factor. In previous leadership roles – be it with Shell or MAS – I had always “inherited” an existing team. I may have hired a few persons but the teams were nonetheless acquired without much room to maneuver.

With the setting up of Pemandu in 2009, for the first time in my corporate and public life, I had the space to assemble my dream team. With no previous organisational baggage, we started out on a clean slate to tackle the hard work of transformation.

Over the years, I have come to love how my team has developed. They are impassioned in wanting to contribute and are prepared to shoulder the load. There are no half-measures to this journey – we have to finish what we started. I cannot imagine walking away from that.

This brings me to our current challenge, the economy. Malaysians must remember we are significantly plugged into the global economy. Shocks experienced globally undoubtedly affect us.

From January 1 to September 2 this year, the ringgit depreciated by 17% against the US dollar. But some perspective is needed – New Zealand, Russia and Australia for example have all taken painful hits in the same period, not just Malaysia.

As a nation that is huge on trading, we tend to be more exposed to external shocks beyond our control. Sniffles and sneezes from key trading partners in the US, China, Europe and Taiwan may cause us to end up with a cold too, as supply and demand patterns swing dramatically.

The Government, as keen observers of the global economic movements, was acutely aware of the need to ramp up on resilience:

  • Goods and services tax (GST) introduced in April this year to broaden the tax base and create a more equitable and sustainable taxation system
  •  Large subsidies, including fuel, have been progressively rationalised to reduce and streamline Government spending
  •  For more economic maneuvering space, we have been steadfast in cutting fiscal deficit from 6.7% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2009 to 3.2% in 2014, while keeping our debt level below the self-imposed ceiling of 55% of GDP.

These are reasons why we are better poised today to face a downturn than we were during the Asian financial crisis:

  •  Our fiscal position has improved significantly, investments are at record levels, and trade numbers remain better than most countries
  •  We remain one of the best performing economies in ASEAN, having recorded a healthy GDP growth of 5.3%
  •  Under the Economic Transformation Programme, all sectors (National key economic areas or NKEAs) registered growth, reducing our reliance on oil and gas revenue from 40% in 2009 to 29% in 2014.

I am writing this article in Jerusalem while on a Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. My family and I have dreamt about this for years. We traveled for 10 days through Jordan, into Palestine and Israel. Battered by centuries of wars and conflicts, they simply do not have the kind of peace, which we take for granted in Malaysia. I was moved to see gripping images on CNN about the ongoing migrant crisis involving hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Hungary, waiting to get into Europe for a better life. For these people, it is a harsh and cruel world. I am just grateful I am a Malaysian.

All said and done, one thing I know for certain – in life you cannot cherry-pick. It comes with the good, the bad and the ugly. But it is our own volition how we choose to live it, to have the willingness and faith to make a difference for the better. I am hopeful that when the upside comes, we will stand strong and ready to catch that ride.

Dato’  Seri Idris Jala is CEO of Pemandu, the Performance Management and Delivery Unit. Fair and reasonable comments are most welcome at

Lee Kuan Yew was sui generis

March 29, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew was sui generis

by Terence

Asia’s generation of independence-gaining leaders knew little or nothing of how to get the economies of their countries going.

Lee-Kuan-Yew India’s Jawarharlal Nehru, Indonesia’s Sukarno, and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh succeeded in freeing their countries from the colonial powers, but their triumphs were Pyrrhic. The euphoria of independence turned out to as evanescent as morning dew, their countries falling away after gaining freedom, stymied either by the ethnic and religious hatreds that had long bedeviled them, or hobbled by the choice of growth-stifling economic systems, or worse, caught up as proxies in the Cold War rivalry between the West and the communist bloc.

Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore – the names are interchangeable as no founding leader has stamped his mark on his country like Lee did – avoided the fate of these countries and their larger-than-life progenitors.

From scratch in 1959 when Singapore became self-governing, Lee built up the city-state to become an an economic and technological cynosure. He did this through the practice of a capitalism that emphasised no corruption, hard work, meritocracy, low taxes and high savings. And he held the line on the utility of the English language for upward mobility.

The upshot was phenomenal: Singapore rose from an economy whose gross domestic product (GDP) was US$427 per capita in 1960 to US$55,000 in 2013. This increase is stupendous by any measure, more so considering Singapore is without natural resources save a good harbour.

Lee achieved this transformation via methods that scorned the Western view that democracy was the last word in human political development. He was harsh on opponents, jailing them without trial if not bankrupting them with libel suits, and his view of the press was that they should not presume to tell him how Singapore should be governed.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the historian Francis Fukuyama espoused the theory of the “end of history” owing to the triumph of “liberal democracy”. Fukuyama said that the natural wish of humans to be free from repression would eventuate in their choice of a liberal democratic system of governance.

Fukuyama saw that communism’s fall cleared the way for the flowering of a system that believed in limited government, respected individual rights, allowed for free and fair elections, and encouraged governance by informed consent of the governed.

That this theory does not enjoy traction in Confucian societies was suggested, first, by Park Chung-hee in South Korea and, then, by Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, and, later still, by Deng Xiaoping in China.

A Preference for order over disorder

The reason why an authoritarianism that was not draconian fostered growth and order in these Confucian societies was because of the ethos inculcated by the ancient Chinese sage which instilled a preference for order over the disorder of uninhibited political competition, placed family and social obligations to the kin group above individual rights, and encouraged respect for authority if it was reasonably exercised.

In Confucian societies, a quasi-authoritarianism is no reason for resistance, provided there are opportunities for people to become rich, educated and industrious. Rights are secondary to obligations and order is valued more than individual fulfillment.

Lee Kuan Yew understood this ethos which was why he always maintained, in the face of criticism of his heavy-handedness, that he knew his society better than the critics of his methods. Implicit in Lee’s approach was his confidence that Singaporeans would  applaud his quasi-authoritarianism when they see its economic outcome: the transformation of a resource-bereft and vulnerable geographic crossroads into a world hub of transport and trade. Singapore’s GDP was US$1 billion in 1960; in 2013 it was US$298 billion.

SingaporeSingapore’s spectacular economic growth has made Lee’s advice on how to govern much sought after, especially among leaders of countries keen to transform their backward economies.

India has declared a day of national mourning and its Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, a devotee of the economic-growth-as-panacea school, will attend Lee’s funeral in the island-state today, surely a mark of his determination to emulate the Singaporean model of development.

Singapore’s phenomenal economic progress gave Lee the platform to advice even the big powers on matters of geopolitical and strategic interest, with the former US President Richard Nixon an admirer who wryly observed that the “engine was too big for the boat”, by which he meant Lee’s intelligence and ability ought to have had an impact on a widely beneficial scale than just the tiny island he led from obscurity to economic powerhouse.

This brings us to the inevitable question of the what-might-have-been had Lee and Singapore not been, in his words, “turfed out” of Malaysia in 1965. The whole question of Singapore’s merger and separation from its 1963 federation with Malaya and Borneo is so vexed a matter that even after a half-century the subject is suffused with emotion that hinders objective assessment.

It will require a historian of Olympian detachment to unpack the tangled strands and allow the judgmental chips to fall where they may. If history is the record of what one age finds worthy of note in another, that definition implies a changing standard which may not be as impressed with Lee’s achievements as they presently rate on history’s scales.

Late 20th century and early 21st century truisms about economic-growth-as-panacea may not hold for long as the idea of progress takes in a more comprehensive view of human beings finding fulfillment in civil society, unhindered by any idea that the state knows best.

If standards come to that, Lee Kuan Yew’s ratings will waver from its present lofty levels, but then he may contend that history’s scales are fairly bogus in any case and that what matters are the here and now.


The need for Mr. Spock in an Age of Madness

March 2, 2015

The need for Mr. Spock in an Age of Madness

A Tribute by Dr. Farish

Leonard-Nimoy-image-2 AN ICON: Nimoy’s Mr Spock was a role model for humanity and a voice of logic and reason

THIS week, I would like, if I may, to write about something rather differ­ent from what I usually write about. Regular readers would know that this writer has focused more on issues of re­gional politics in the past.

The pass­ing of actor Leonard Nimoy has struck a chord with many who grew up in the 1960s-80s, and who are familiar with the TV series, Star Trek. Among the characters of the series, the character that Nimoy played – Mr Spock the scientist ­was perhaps the most familiar and iconic. For youngsters like myself who were at school then and who were hooked on the series, he was an icon and role model for book-de­vouring nerds and geeks who enjoyed the sciences and were fasci­nated by the charms of modernity.

Actor Leonard NimoyMr. Leonard Nimoy

While tributes to Nimoy the actor have come from all over the world, it is interesting to note that he was, and remains, in the eyes of many the same figure as Mr Spock whom he played. There is, however, one as­pect to the character of Spock that particularly deserves mention today, in the context of the troubled times we live in where irrational sectarian violence is rife across the world: Spock was a man of science and in the series Star Trek he was often presented as the contrarian voice to the more emotional Captain Kirk.

Indeed, the legacy of Mr Spock’s character is precisely that: That he was a man of reason, science and cool temper, in contrast to the vi­olent characters that often appeared in the many episodes of the series. We need to place him in the context of the times, and note that Star Trek appeared at the height of the Cold War where fear and animosity on both sides of the iron curtain was also high.

Star-Trek-001The Original Cast of Star Trek

At a time when Hollywood TV series often featured men of vi­olence and brutish action, his was perhaps one of the very few char­acters that constantly professed the opposite: A belief in the power of logic and reason, and the hope that science would uplift the lot of hu­man beings. In contrast to the cow­boy and war films being made then, it is astounding that Star Trek became a hit, and the character of Spock a popular hero.

In so many respects the figure of Mr Spock offered an alternative model of masculinity that was in stark contrast to the male stereo­type of that age. Eschewing vi­olence and irrationality, his char­acter placed his faith in the ability’ of reason and logic to discover truths and to enlighten the igno­rant. In total contrast to the image of the man of violence being pop­ularised elsewhere, his image of­fered a reversed interpretation of what masculinity could and should be like.

Today, we live in a world where religious and political sectarian vi­olence has led to terror attacks, indiscriminate killing of civilians and hostages, the burning of li­braries and the wanton destruction of relics and monuments of the past. All of this violence has been justified in the name of political ideologies or religions, by people who profess belief in things they may not even understand. If one were to take a snapshot of the age we live in today, one might conclude that we do indeed live in an age of madness and unreason.

Bust_of_Mahatma_Gandhi,_Saughton_Park,_Edinburgh_(1997)Mahatma Gandhi

Now, more than ever, we need role models and heroes of non­violent nature who can point to an alternative vision of the future that is more enlightened and tolerant of everyone. Now is the time when the world needs a Spock-like vision of a common humanity united in ra­tional thinking, fair and balanced discourse and objective analysis. Sadly, popular media today has in­stead fed us with a steady stream of popular nonsense, and no film to­day would be complete without some monster, alien, zombie, ter­rorist or murderer on the loose.

The passing of Leonard Nimoy was not merely the passing of an actor, but of a character who managed to get a generation to pause and think. Now is when we need such models most, and now is when reason has to be seen as an act of valour.

Farish Noor is an Associate Professor and Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and Visiting Fellow at ISIS Malaysia



Book Review: ‘The Innovators,’ by Walter Isaacson

October 4, 2014

Sunday Book Review

Geek Squad


‘The Innovators,’ by Walter Isaacson