Cut out middlemen and save billions – and the rakyat


June 19, 2018

Cut out middlemen and save billions – and the rakyat

by P Gunasegaram
QUESTION TIME |Coming in the wake of the decisive election victory for Pakatan Harapan, the Ramadan bazaar scandal in Jalan Masjid India, Kuala Lumpur is a clear indication of the kind of corrupt patronage middlemen deals that the coalition has to face and overcome as it moves forward.

 

Such deals where political clout is used to dish out projects to essentially middlemen who subsequently just palm it off to others for huge profits is one of the major forms of leakage the economy is currently facing.

Most of the projects may be small but the same process is repeated in large contracts too where the company that gets the project oftentimes does not have any expertise in the project area and simply gets in partners from elsewhere, earning a fat commission in the process for basically doing nothing but getting the project in.

If the government had long ago stopped such middlemen from profiteering at the expense of nation and rakyat, we would be in much better shape now. But instead, such deals worsened with outright kleptocracy, using 1MDB to first borrow funds and then steal from it. It is now incumbent upon Harapan to bring about such a change, nothing less.

The Ramadan bazaar is an excellent case study of middlemen pilferage and how politicians and authorities facilitated it. According to the exclusive report by Malaysiakini, a Bersatu party leader used political connections via a DAP MP who issued a “letter of support” for the Ramadan bazaar in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.

‘Letter of support’

The Bukit Bintang Bersatu Youth chief, Mohd Noorhisyam Abd Karim, secured approval from Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) to organise the bazaar with this “letter of support” from DAP Bukit Bintang MP and DAP treasurer Fong Kui Lan. A letter from DBKL to Mohd Noorhisyam, which had gone viral on social media, showed that 80 lots were approved for nine days for RM6,238.

This included a payment of RM180 per lot (RM20 per day) for licensing, space and cleaning fees for the bazaar which stretched from the Mydin hypermarket in Pudu to Masjid India. In the Ramadan bazaar case, the government got a little over RM6,000, while the middleman allegedly could have pocketed RM400,000 from the sale of the 80 lots at RM5,000, each making an incredible 66 times his initial outlay.

This is classic UMNO-style patronage politics at its worst which worrisomely, has infected Harapan so early in its term of office. It has to get rid of this forthwith if it is to make plenty of savings from procurement contracts and get revenue for the government directly instead of much of it going to middlemen.

Fong, while admitting he issued the “letter of support”, told Malaysiakini that Mohd Noorhisyam promised him that no money would be collected. “He promised they would not collect money and they would not obstruct the shops. I gave him a support letter to help hawkers who could not get a license from DBKL,” said the five-term MP.

Fong also denied receiving a cut from Mohd Noorhisyam or his associates.

Meanwhile, DBKL hawker licensing and development department director Anwar Mohd Zain told Malaysiakini that City Hall was unaware that Mohd Noorhisyam was allegedly charging exorbitant fees for the bazaar lots.

Mohd Noorhisyam has since denied the allegations against him and told Malaysiakini that he had not taken any money from traders.

Still, there is vital explanation required. Why does DBKL have to issue lots through a third party? Why does Bukit Bintang MP Fong need to issue a “letter of support” to a middleman, when he could have done it directly to DBKL? What is the role of Mohd Noorhisyam in all these, especially when DBKL could have issued the lots directly to traders through a bidding cum draw?

Nefarious activities

If true, such an outlandish profit came from the poor stallholders who were trying to make some money during Ramadan but whose profits would have been massively scaled back by the RM5,000 they had to shell out for the nine-day period, equivalent to a massive RM555 a day.

That shows the nature of the greed of these unscrupulous people who during the holy month of Ramadan, fleece RM400,000 of their own kind who are poor and struggling to make ends meet. Where is their moral and religious conscience?

Think of things like these repeated many thousands of time all over Malaysia at local and district levels and the billions pilfered or lost. Think of all the hassle that people who are trying to make a living with small businesses suffer at the hands of enforcement agencies such as DBKL scattered throughout the country.

Think of all the bribes they have to pay and the harassment they get even if they are fully compliant with all council regulations and think of all the rules and regulations flouted by those who “pay” the authorities regularly.

Think of all the revenue that the government, state and local authorities can raise if they directly, properly, efficiently and cleanly allocate precious resources without resorting to politically-connected businesspersons and those willing to grease palms.

Harapan now controls seven out of 11 state governments in the peninsula while Sarawak and Sabah are already in the hands of parties now friendly to Harapan. Together they can draw up and implement measures throughout the country to ensure that everything is run in the interest of the rakyat and the government – and profiteering is no longer allowed at any level via middlemen.

Indeed, those who are involved in such nefarious activities must be brought to book and the weight of the law brought to bear upon them without discrimination from the largest to the smallest projects.

 

For those states still ruled by parties other than Harapan, the call should be made to follow the example of the other states in the award of all contracts and for all procurement. If they don’t, the warning should be issued that the police and the MACC will be on the lookout for any malpractices and will bring miscreants swiftly to the book.

Proper procedure

This does not mean sidelining bumiputera entrepreneurs and companies but ensuring that they really are that and not acting as middlemen for others and that they actually have the capacity to undertake projects and that they are actually needed to do the job.

Genuine bumiputera contractors who bid for the job could be given a small price advantage as part of the continuation of affirmative action programmes and other advantages, much like what some government agencies currently did for bona fide bumiputera contractors in the past.

This is not an abandonment of Malay rights or privileges provided for under the constitution but actually a reinforcement of that through a proper procedure which weeds out profiteering that only benefits middlemen at the expense of real bumiputera entrepreneurs as it was with this Ramadan bazaar incident.

Harapan has a responsibility to ensure that incidents such as this Ramadan bazaar spectacle never happens anywhere again and that all blood-sucking middlemen are removed forthwith from the scene. Doing so would not only save the country billions of ringgit but ensure that the rakyat benefits from the proper use and allocation of scarce government resources.

We did not vote in Harapan for another new crop of leeches coming up to suck the nation and the rakyat dry. Such notions must be suitably disabused by quick action over the Ramadan bazaar case to bring to account everyone involved – politician, middleman and the overseeing authority.

Otherwise, Harapan is going to lose credibility pretty fast.

 


P GUNASEGARAM says that being in government is more onerous than being in opposition. He hopes fervently that Harapan will rise to the occasion and not succumb to the habits of old. E-mail: t.p.guna@gmail.com.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Our Infant Information Revolution


June 15, 2018

Our Infant Information Revolution

 

In the middle of the twentieth century, people feared that advances in computers and communications would lead to the type of centralized control depicted in George Orwell’s 1984. Today, billions of people have eagerly put Big Brother in their pockets.

Toddler concentrated with a tablet

 

CAMBRIDGE – It is frequently said that we are experiencing an information revolution. But what does that mean, and where is the revolution taking us?

Information revolutions are not new. In 1439, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press launched the era of mass communication. Our current revolution, which began in Silicon Valley in the 1960s, is bound up with Moore’s Law: the number of transistors on a computer chip doubles every couple of years.

Information provides power, and more people have access to more information than ever before, for good and for ill. That power can be used not only by governments, but also by non-state actors ranging from large corporations and non-profit organizations to criminals, terrorists, and informal ad hoc groups.–Joseph S. Nye

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, computing power cost one-thousandth of what it did in the early 1970s. Now the Internet connects almost everything. In mid-1993, there were about 130 websites in the world; by 2000, that number had surpassed 15 million. Today, more than 3.5 billion people are online; experts project that, by 2020, the “Internet of Things” will connect 20 billion devices. Our information revolution is still in its infancy.

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The key characteristic of the current revolution is not the speed of communications; instantaneous communication by telegraph dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. The crucial change is the enormous reduction in the cost of transmitting and storing information. If the price of an automobile had declined as rapidly as the price of computing power, one could buy a car today for the same price as a cheap lunch. When a technology’s price declines so rapidly, it becomes widely accessible, and barriers to entry fall. For all practical purposes, the amount of information that can be transmitted worldwide is virtually infinite.

The cost of information storage has also declined dramatically, enabling our current era of big data. Information that once would fill a warehouse now fits in your shirt pocket.

In the middle of the twentieth century, people feared that the computers and communications of the current information revolution would lead to the type of centralized control depicted in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Big Brother would monitor us from a central computer, making individual autonomy meaningless.

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Instead, as the cost of computing power has decreased and computers have shrunk to the size of smart phones, watches, and other portable devices, their decentralizing effects have complemented their centralizing effects, enabling peer-to-peer communication and mobilization of new groups. Yet, ironically, this technological trend has also decentralized surveillance: billions of people nowadays voluntarily carry a tracking device that continually violates their privacy as it searches for cell towers. We have put Big Brother in our pockets.

Likewise, ubiquitous social media generate new transnational groups, but also create opportunities for manipulation by governments and others. Facebook connects more than two billion people, and, as Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election showed, these connections and groups can be exploited for political ends. Europe has tried to establish rules for privacy protection with its new General Data Protection Regulation, but its success is still uncertain. In the meantime, China is combining surveillance with the development of social credit rankings that will restrict personal freedoms such as travel.

Information provides power, and more people have access to more information than ever before, for good and for ill. That power can be used not only by governments, but also by non-state actors ranging from large corporations and non-profit organizations to criminals, terrorists, and informal ad hoc groups.

This does not mean the end of the nation-state. Governments remain the most powerful actors on the global stage; but the stage has become more crowded, and many of the new players can compete effectively in the realm of soft power. A powerful navy is important in controlling sea-lanes; but it does not provide much help on the Internet. In nineteenth-century Europe, the mark of a great power was its ability to prevail in war, but, as the American analyst John Arquilla has pointed out, in today’s global information age, victory often depends not on whose army wins, but on whose story wins.

Public diplomacy and the power to attract and persuade become increasingly important, but public diplomacy is changing. Long gone are the days when foreign service officers carted film projectors to the hinterlands to show movies to isolated audiences, or people behind the Iron Curtain huddled over short-wave radios to listen to the BBC. Technological advances have led to an explosion of information, and that has produced a “paradox of plenty”: an abundance of information leads to scarcity of attention.

When people are overwhelmed by the volume of information confronting them, it is hard to know what to focus on. Attention, not information, becomes the scarce resource. The soft power of attraction becomes an even more vital power resource than in the past, but so does the hard, sharp power of information warfare. And as reputation becomes more vital, political struggles over the creation and destruction of credibility multiply. Information that appears to be propaganda may not only be scorned, but may also prove counterproductive if it undermines a country’s reputation for credibility.

During the Iraq War, for example, the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay in a manner inconsistent with America’s declared values led to perceptions of hypocrisy that could not be reversed by broadcasting images of Muslims living well in America. Similarly, President Donald Trump’s tweets that prove to be demonstrably false undercut American credibility and reduce its soft power.

Public diplomacy and the power to attract and persuade become increasingly important, but public diplomacy is changing. Long gone are the days when foreign service officers carted film projectors to the hinterlands to show movies to isolated audiences, or people behind the Iron Curtain huddled over short-wave radios to listen to the BBC. Technological advances have led to an explosion of information, and that has produced a “paradox of plenty”: an abundance of information leads to scarcity of attention.–Joseph S. Nye

The effectiveness of public diplomacy is judged by the number of minds changed (as measured by interviews or polls), not dollars spent. It is interesting to note that polls and the Portland index of the Soft Power 30 show a decline in American soft power since the beginning of the Trump administration. Tweets can help to set the global agenda, but they do not produce soft power if they are not credible.

Now the rapidly advancing technology of artificial intelligence or machine learning is accelerating all of these processes. Robotic messages are often difficult to detect. But it remains to be seen whether credibility and a compelling narrative can be fully automated.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., a former US assistant secretary of defense and chairman of the US National Intelligence Council, is University Professor at Harvard University. He is the author of Is the American Century Over?

 

Shake Off Feudalism: This is 21st Century Malaysia


June 7, 2018

Shake Off Feudalism: This is 21st Century Malaysia

by S. Thayaparan@www.malaysiakini.com

COMMENT | “The people expect them to be the embodiment of all things good and holy. But the question is: Are they?”

– A Kadir Jasin, “Constitution: The King and the Pauper

I never thought I would say this, but former Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin questioning UMNO information chief Annuar Musa if the latter was still living in the Hang Tuah era, was pretty interesting blowback for Annuar’s urging of the state security apparatus to investigate Bersatu Supreme Council member A Kadir Jasin for his article allegedly “questioning” the royal institution.

Furthermore Maidin’s caution of not threatening the rakyat with “reckless feudalism” is also a reminder that perhaps, we are living in a new dawn of Malaysians politics, something which I am skeptical of. This idea that political hegemons “threaten” the rakyat with “feudalism”, reckless or otherwise, has always been the preferred weapon of the “bangsa and agama” (race and religion) crowd.

Here is an example of this narrative whereby the rakyat have been threatened with “feudalism”.

When Anwar Ibrahim goes on his royal tour, apparently to convince the royalty that all is kosher with “Malay rights” and “Islam”, this is part of the narrative that Malay rights and Islam are under attack.

Image result for Anwar Ibrahim a Royalist

Anwar Ibrahim–  A Reformist or a Fawning Royalist? Maybe a Political Chameleon. He should be grateful to Malaysians for his Pardon.

When Anwar Ibrahim and any Malay politician for that matter have to reassure the Malay community that for hithe appointment of Tommy Thomas will not adversely affect Malay rights and Islam, this feeds into the narrative that those ideas/institutions are under attack. The counter-narrative is, have they ever been under attack?

What did Kadir actually say in his pieces about the royalty? In his blog post, “Constitution: The King and the Pauper”, he:

  1. Questioned the journalistic integrity of the New Straits Times;
  2. Questioned if the Royalty was really insecure as some have claimed;
  3. Wondered why Anwar Ibrahim had to go on his royal tour; and
  4. Reminded the ordinary rakyat of how much is allegedly spent on the Agong and the difference of expectation between a pauper and a king.

To wit – “But unlike the pauper who evokes God’s name to earn sympathy of the passers-by, the Agong evokes God’s name in his oath of office.”

That’s powerful stuff coming from Kadir, and the reality is that this is what the average rakyat is wondering.

When kids carry out a car wash to contribute to the Hope Fund or whatever it’s called, people think it demonstrates how Malaysian we are.

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When the salaries of politicians are cut and the trimmings used to contribute to the Hope Fund, people think it demonstrates how politicians are playing their part in saving this country.

However, when the expenses of the royalty are brought into question, people wonder, why is it so much when we are told that we are on an austerity drive.

We have a Finance Minister who apparently has sleepless nights because of his fear of the financial time bombs that he would discover in the red files.

The rakyat also notices how the royalty, during the lead-up to the elections and post-elections, by word or deed have made extremely political overtures.

Of course, when you bring up the expenses of the royalty, you better cite sources which are credible, which is where Kadir’s piece suffers.

However, what should be done is that the Finance Ministry should immediately issue a response and tell the rakyat exactly how much is spent on the royal institutions.

After all, this is supposed to be a ministry which values truth above all else. Truth, we are told, is needed for this country to move forward.

So when Kadir makes a statement about royal expenses, his claim does not have to be challenged by the royalty but should either be verified and challenged by the Finance Ministry. End of controversy. However, Kadir’s piece is more than just about royal expenses.

Kadir’s conclusion is this – “In conclusion, our CONSTITUTIONAL monarch (emphasis in original) has nothing to fear if they understand their special position and stick to their duties as spelt out by the constitution – and the rakyat wonder, does the royal institution understand their special position and stick to their duties as spelt out in the constitution?”

When UMNO was in charge, there was never an issue when UMNO set policy. Even when former Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak introduced the National Security Council Act – by the way Harapan folks, is this act going to be ditched? – the “issues” with the objections of the royalty were simply brushed aside.

Nobody in UMNO seemed to care that the royal institutions were sidelined because the sitting UMNO Prime Minister wanted more power than the Agong. Even Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad said as much on the campaign trail.

Did anyone from UMNO or PAS object when the constitutional provisions that guaranteed certain rights to the royalty were supplanted by this most odious of “acts” from UMNO? Were the rakyat threatened by reckless feudalism from the UMNO state?

Did the royalty make noise that the powers they were guaranteed under the constitution – the very same powers, that Kadir argues, makes them immune from insecurity – were under attack from the Najib regime?

Did the Malays need to be reassured that the Malay institution was not under attack?

This idea that the royal institution has not changed through constitutional means is a myth, much like the mythical/mystical era – depending on the source – of the Hang Tuah era.

The current Harapan grand poohbah in his time went against the “reckless feudalism” and instituted changes that were embraced by some of the very same UMNO potentates who are now scrambling for power in the political party – UMNO – which has staked the “bangsa and agama” ground as its sole province.

Look even in the Sinar Metro article, all Kadir did was raise three points – in my opinion – which are vital to the economic and social stability of this country. Reproduced here in the original Malay:

  1. “Mereka dibayar gaji oleh rakyat jelata dan segala keperluan rasmi mereka ditanggung oleh kerajaan. Dalam keadaan di mana hidup rakyat susah dan kewangan negara sempit, kerajaan tidak boleh sekali-kali membazirkan wang untuk sesiapa pun. Biarlah saya kata macam ini: Istana-istana yang ada itu sudah mewah.
  2. Dalam usaha kerajaan baharu mempertahankan hak rakyat jelata dan melindungi institusi negara daripada sebarang bentuk pencabulan maka adalah penting diambil tahu pembabitan raja atau istana dalam kegiatan-kegiatan tidak rasmi seperti perniagaan dan social.
  3. Kalau perlu kita kaji semula perlembagaan dan kontrak sosial bagi mengambil kira suasana dan realiti yang ada pada hari ini bagi mengharmonikan perjanjian antara raja dan rakyat jelata.”

My interpretation of Kadir’s words is as follows (you may of course disagree): In times of austerity, because the rakyat are in a crunch, the government of the day should scrutinise its expenses and the royal institutions should also play their part. That the royal institutions should not be involved in unofficial business and social enterprises, because it weakens the integrity of these institutions and encourages practices which are detrimental to a functional state. And as Malaysians we should understand that reforms of institutions – all institutions – are needed to save this country.

If anything, what Kadir is advocating is “responsible feudalism”, which I suppose is what a constitutional monarchy is all about.of


S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy

 

Making Academia Matter Again


April 19, 2018

Making Academia Matter Again

by 

Academics can no longer afford to pat themselves on the back and celebrate their own privileges. If they are to defend the freedom of their enterprise, they must restore dialogue with the broader public and ensure that the relevance of their research – and how research actually occurs – is well understood.

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CAMBRIDGE – Academic freedom is a precious commodity, critical to ensure that discovery of the truth is not encumbered by political or ideological forces. But this does not mean that intellectuals should hide in academic bunkers that, by protecting us from criticism by “non-experts,” allow ego to flourish and enable a focus on questions that are not actually relevant to anyone else. We experts should have to explain ourselves.

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The University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh
 

This means, first and foremost, that researchers should be communicating their results in a way that supports accountability and confirms that public funds and education benefits are being used in ways that are in taxpayers’ interests. The duty to communicate findings also ensures that the public is educated, not only about the topic itself, but also about the way research actually works.

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Scholarly books and journals often give the impression that the truth is revealed through a neat, orderly, and logical process. But research is far from being a pristine landscape; in fact, it resembles a battlefield, littered with miscalculations, failed experiments, and discarded assumptions. The path to truth is often convoluted, and those who travel along it often must navigate fierce competition and professional intrigue.

Some argue that it is better to hide this reality from the public, in order to maintain credibility. For example, in 2014, physicists collaborating on a project known as BICEP2 thought that they had detected gravitational waves from the beginning of the universe. It was later realized that the signal they had detected could be entirely attributed to interstellar dust.

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H.E. Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, University of Cambodia (UC) Founder, Board and Trustee Chairman, And President seeks to create a Research  Culture at UC,Phnom Penh.

Some of my colleagues worried that this revelation would undermine faith in other scientific predictions, such as those involving climate change. But would hiding the truth from the public really do more for scientific and academic credibility than cultivating a culture of transparency? Probably not. In fact, being honest about the realities of research might enhance trust and create more space for innovation, with an informed public accepting that risk is the unavoidable and worthwhile cost of groundbreaking and broadly beneficial discoveries.

Another way to ensure that academia continues to innovate in useful and relevant ways is to blur the traditional boundaries among disciplines – the frontiers where invention so often happens. To that end, universities should update their organizational structure, moving away from clearly delineated departments in order to create a kind of continuum across the arts, humanities, and sciences. Students should be encouraged to take courses in multiple disciplines, so that they can weave those lessons and experiences into new patterns of knowledge.

To make this process sustainable, universities should ensure that the courses and curricula they offer help students to develop the skills that a fast-changing labor market demands. This means not just creating new curricula today, but also updating them every few years, in order to account for new trends and discoveries in areas ranging from artificial intelligence and Big Data to alternative energy sources and genome editing.

Professors, for their part, should approach their job as mentors of future leaders in science, technology, the arts, and humanities, rather than attempting to mold students in their own intellectual image. Of course, the latter approach can be useful if the goal is to advance the popularity of one’s own research program and to ensure that one’s own ideas and perspective endure. But that is not the fundamental mission of academia.

The louder the consensus in the echo chambers of academia become, the greater the ego boost for those who inhabit those chambers. But history shows that progress is sometimes advocated by a soft voice in the background, like that of Albert Einstein during his early career. Truth and consensus are not always the same. Diversity of opinion – which implies diversity of gender, ethnicity, and background – is vital to support creativity, discovery, and progress.

That is why it is so important for prizes and professional associations to be used not to reinforce mainstream perspectives, but rather to encourage independent thought and reward innovation. This does not mean that all opinions should be considered equal, but rather that alternative views should be debated and vetted on merit alone.

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We in academia cannot continue to pat ourselves on the back, celebrating our own privileges and failing to look at the world in new and relevant ways. If we are to defend the freedom of our enterprise, we must restore dialogue with the broader public and ensure that the relevance of our work is well understood – including by us.

BOOK REVIEW: In Defense of a Liberal Education


April 8, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: In Defense of a Liberal Education

https://mtprof.msun.edu/Spr2015/lanrev.html

In Defense of Liberal Education
Fareed Zakaria
New York: W.W. Norton, 2015
208 pp., $16.00 hc

by Marvin Lansverk, PhD
Professor of English Literature
Montana State University Bozeman

“I understand that we need a certain number of philosophers, and I understand that it’s important to have a certain number of people who study history. But we’re not currently creating a lot of jobs in those areas. So we have to look at what curriculums we really need…. People who are getting degrees in philosophy and history, God bless them, it’s wonderful that they’re critical thinkers. But now they’re going back to a college of technology to get a life skill to get a job.” —Brian Schweitzer, Governor of Montana, 2005-2013 (Hechinger Report, 27 June 2012)—Marvin Lansverk

Perhaps I should start with a bias warning: I went to a liberal arts university. I teach English literature. I like the liberal arts, whether as a major or part of a broad-based undergraduate education. And I’m dismayed by the recent rhetorical turn in the media, along with legislative and policy initiatives, away from the liberal arts—as if they are suddenly passé or something to be feared your kid will become interested in, like drugs, especially when such expressions are accompanied by statements implying that the liberal arts don’t lead to employable skills. As an antidote, I like to read defenses of liberal education, whether John Henry Newman’s nineteenth century classic The Idea of a University, or articles from current CEOs explaining why they actually prefer to hire liberal arts majors, or statistics that show that the salaries of liberal arts majors stack up favorably against other majors, or books like this latest one by Fareed Zakaria, someone with a real job—if being a public intellectual, editor of Foreign Affairs and of Newsweek and Time, a TV host and commentator, a Washington Post columnist, a college professor, and an influential writer count as having a real job. Thus even before I picked it up, I expected I would like Zakaria’s recent In Defense of a Liberal Education, and I do: but not just because it validates my own views. Actually I disagree with a number of his views and am bothered by some of his analysis, which seems overly glib. But what I especially like about Zakaria’s modest book is that it isn’t simply another jeremiad about the ills of American higher education, nor an uninformed call for radical changes which too often tend to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, nor an ideological rant with more ideology than information. Instead, it’s a welcome call for balance, written with balance: balancing data, personal stories, social policy, and an understanding of the history of liberal education in America and the multiple purposes of higher education, all accomplished in the context of Zakaria’s deep knowledge of the present social and political global landscape.

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The book started as a commencement address defending liberal education to the 2014 graduating class of Sarah Lawrence College—certainly preaching to the choir. Ten months later, the well-received address was expanded into this book, the best audience for which now might be said to be the skeptics, or cold-cruel-world realists who wonder if our students still have time for Chaucer when our global competitiveness is at stake. To them, Zakaria says yes, the liberal arts matter, using his own life story as an important perspective on the material, making the book partly a personal memoir, partly a history of higher education, and partly a call for more informed and data-driven education policies, especially by our leaders who should know better, whether President Obama’s “I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree,” or the governors from Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Wisconsin with their recent attempts to de-fund the liberal arts at their state universities, with Rick Scott of Florida’s: “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

Zakaria’s response is this book. It is actually a collection of six essays (the six chapters of the book) with a fairly broad focus. But what ties the chapters together is Zakaria’s personal story and his ongoing ethical authority on the subject: as someone who draws daily on his liberal education and the life skills it imparted.

Chapter One, “Coming to America,” tells Zakaria’s personal story, of being raised in India in its education system focused on memorization, content, and tests (steering children, boys especially, almost exclusively into science and business), then almost on a lark finding himself applying to and getting into Yale in the 1980s (when liberal arts institutions in the U.S. were barely on the radar of Indians). Zakaria then tells how at Yale he discovered the power of a liberal education and through it also discovered his future path in international politics and economics, majoring in history (subsequently earning a PhD in Government from Harvard). What makes the story powerful and contemporary is that it’s a version of the classic “American” story, in its Global 2.0 incarnation, of an individual making good through hard work, determination, and exposure to the American system of higher education. And the story itself is a necessary reminder to policymakers now, appropriately worried about American global competitiveness and statistics showing us falling behind in the educational attainment of our population. And the moral of the story is that our education system, with all its problems, is still the envy of the world. And still producing remarkable results.

LiberalEducationsm

Chapter Two, “A Brief History of Liberal Education,” though brief, covers a two thousand year history, starting with the Greeks, dashing through the establishment of medieval universities, with a glance at Britain, to an examination of the American system, with a focus on Harvard’s curricular innovations, the rise of electives, and the emergence of our standard liberal arts curricula—with a core curriculum, a major, and a healthy dose of exploration and free choice. Zakaria’s theme throughout is that societies have always struggled with balancing competing needs in their education systems, that curricula in this country have always been undergoing changes, that they aren’t frozen in the medieval past (which some critics continue to claim). Nevertheless, Zakaria recognizes that improvements still need to be made: especially in increasing the scientific literacy of all students. Zakaria again offers a personal example of change, of Yale’s recent joint venture (where Zakaria had become a trustee) with the National University of Singapore to establish a new liberal arts institution in Asia, Yale-NUS College, which opened its doors Fall 2013. Recognizing Singapore’s own need to develop more of the kinds of creativity and critical thinking and entrepreneurship characteristic of American higher education—and even more of the self discovery—it has made a recent bet on more liberal education, not less.

The value of this Chapter 2 actually lies in its brevity. It isn’t that the history Zakaria tells here is new, and it is developed in far less detail than in the sources that Zakaria draws upon (carefully citing the sources in this first book since his own citation scandal in 2012 that we have seen affect other public intellectuals similarly writing at speed with research staffs, and therefore sometimes not as careful about citations as the standards of academic research require). But overviews have their role as well. And many current skeptics or other busy people paying only occasional attention to higher education debates aren’t going to take the time to read the comprehensive histories of the liberal arts (such as Wesleyan’s president, Michael Roth’s 2014 erudite Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, which Zakaria also cites). So there is value in quickly retelling the story, reminding us of how we got here, and reminding us what the liberal in liberal education means, which seems especially important for those made queasy by having any association with a term that also serves as a political label as well (Zakaria’s own political views have been variously characterized as centrist, moderate, liberal, and/or conservative). In this case, Zakaria reminds readers that the liberal in liberal education has its roots in a two thousand year history of liberation and freedom—and not in 21st century American politics.

Chapter Three, “Learning to Think,” finally gets down to the business of defending liberal education. And the lead-in is the question: but what about jobs? Thus, the arguments Zakaria makes become both philosophical and practical at the same time, matching the balance that characterizes the book. His specific arguments why liberal education must continue to be valued aren’t new, but the examples and topical asides are. In brief, what liberal education imparts, and what it did for him personally, is three things: 1) it teaches you to write, 2) to think, and 3) to learn. This bald summary isn’t that interesting but the balance of examples, anecdotes, quotes from CEOs and data that Zakaria compiles makes for compelling reading. And one of the more interesting threads Zakaria pulls on is the paradox of international test scores—such as the, the Program for International Assessment (PISA), on which the U.S. and other nations with educational systems more like ours tend to do poorly on, revealing an increasing lack of preparation and competence in a variety of subjects by our students, yet whose results don’t track with actual global competitiveness and success. While a highly complex issue, one lesson—relevant in an age of increasing testing regimes—is that not everything that matters can be measured. Quoting Singapore’s former minister of education comparing our system to theirs, Zakaria reports Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s comparative comments: “Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well—like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. These are areas where Singapore must learn from America.”

Chapter 4, “The Natural Aristocracy,” is an eclectic chapter continuing Zakaria’s theme of meritocracy and capitalism as effective and necessary backdrops for our education system (he takes the term natural aristocracy from Thomas Jefferson, indicating a meritocratic system based on talent rather than birth, wealth, and privilege). And he starts with a meditation on the founding fathers and especially on Ben Franklin as the poster child for the American system. Interestingly, this is also the chapter where Zakaria addresses some of the problems bedeviling higher education, including costs that continue to outpace inflation and the continued cost shifting from public sources to individuals, leading to increased individual debt. Zakaria doesn’t have a single solution to offer, but—experienced in the power of mass media to reach all parts of the globe as he is—he, like many others, is fascinated by the promises of technology and distance delivery of courses, especially MOOCs (still new enough to require an identification of the acronym: Massive Open Online Courses). Still in their infancy, they already are expanding access to information, to great teachers, and to American liberal education. One thing Zakaria finds interesting about MOOCs is that students worldwide aren’t just seeking out engineering and technical courses in this online environment; they are also interested in the liberal arts.

Chapters 5 and 6, “Knowledge and Power,” and “In Defense of Today’s Youth,” turn to even broader subjects, though are each short chapters. Chapter 5 addresses the power of knowledge to change the world, and Chapter 6 is Zakaria’s attempt to address the value of a liberal education in developing the individual life of the mind and ourselves as human beings. Though worthy subjects, both read a bit more like newspaper columns than book chapters at this point—and it’s not surprising that the most frequently referenced source in these latter chapters is New York Times columnist David Brooks, whom Zakaria sees himself in dialogue with here.

Ultimately, it is dialogue that Zakaria wants to promote with this book—informed dialogue. And his method of provoking it is to provide a “zoomed out” Google Earth view of American higher education, which—to keep the map metaphor going a bit—functions as a kind of Mercator projection with the importance of liberal education at the center. And as such, it is successful, bearing the strengths and weaknesses of such an intent. It makes effective use of Zakaria’s compelling success story, making his story emblematic of our times; it provides a good overview of issues in higher education; it provides a useful survey of many recent good books on the same subject (from Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (2012), to Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2010), and Excellent Sheep (2014)—all previously reviewed in Montana Professor, the latter in this issue); it’s written in a breezy, quick-reading journalistic prose, and it provides much concrete data to counter the recent public narrative that we’ve outgrown or can no longer afford our childish preoccupation with liberal education. As for its weaknesses, like an unfocused essay, perhaps, the book tries to do too much, thereby having to cover territory too quickly, occasionally relying on too many generalizations in the meantime. As such, it’s not always possible to tell what the generalizations mean (e.g., “Bill Gates was one of the first larger-than-life private figures in contemporary America”). Also, like many books on higher education, there’s a tendency to focus on and continue our culture’s obsession with our so called “elite” or “best schools” when much of the information is actually relevant to the whole education infrastructure—including the Montana University System. And sometimes Zakaria wraps up a survey of complex issues with a simple question as a conclusion, such as “Is this so bad?” That method, however, is a good indication of the purpose of the book. Its focus is on common sense, from someone with an uncommon biography, who is criticizing what is becoming too common: taking for granted the importance of a liberal education in this country that not only can we afford, but that we can’t afford to do without.

[The Montana Professor 25.2, Spring 2015 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>%5D