Condolences to Singaporeans on the Passing of President S R Nathan


August 23, 2016

To all our Friends, Associates, the Government and People of Singapore, and Madam Urmilla Nathan and the Nathan family, Dr. Kamsiah and I wish to convey our condolences on the passing of former President S R Nathan on August 22, 2016.

Having read his 651 page memoirs,  An Unexpected Journey: Path to the Presidency twice, I have grown to admire and feel close to Mr. Nathan for his many achievements in the service of his country. May Mr. Nathan, a towering but humble man, who inspired countless Singaporeans from all walks of life and  won countless friends in ASEAN and the rest of the world for Singapore rest in peace.  –Dr. Kamsiah Haider and Din Merican

Former President S R Nathan dies, aged 92

http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/former-president-s-r/3064846.html

Mr. S R Nathan and his wife Urmila Nathan posing for a picture together in their living room on Aug 21, 1999.PHOTO: ST FILE

“I have known Mr Nathan for 40 years, since I was a young officer in SAF. I remember him as a man guided by a deep sense of duty to the nation. He stepped up each time duty called. He was a true son of Singapore.”–Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

SINGAPORE: Former President S R Nathan died on Monday (August 22), three weeks after suffering a stroke. He was 92.

In its statement, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said: “The Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues are sad to learn of the passing of Mr S R Nathan and would like to convey their condolences to his family. The late Mr Nathan passed away peacefully at Singapore General Hospital on Monday at 9.48pm.

The PMO said a state funeral service will be held for the late Mr Nathan from 4pm on Friday at the University Cultural Centre in NUS.

His body will lie in state at the Parliament House from 10 am on Thursday to 12 pm on Friday, and members of the public who wish to pay their last respects can do so from 10 am to 8 pm on Thursday, according to the statement.

PMO also said that condolence boards will be available at the Istana from 6am on Tuesday for those who wish to pen tributes to the late President.

Mr Nathan had been warded at Singapore General Hospital since his stroke on July 31. He leaves his wife, daughter, son and three grandchildren.

President Tony Tan Keng Yam said that he and his wife Mary were “deeply saddened” by Mr Nathan’s passing. “As President of Singapore, Mr Nathan championed social causes by initiating the President’s Challenge in 2000. The President’s Challenge gained much support from the community and raised over $100 million for more than 500 beneficiaries during Mr Nathan’s two terms of office,” he wrote on Facebook.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sent his condolences to Mrs Nathan and the family. “I have known Mr Nathan for 40 years, since I was a young officer in SAF. I remember him as a man guided by a deep sense of duty to the nation. He stepped up each time duty called. He was a true son of Singapore,” Mr Lee said.

Mr Nathan officially stepped down on Aug 31, 2011 after announcing that he would not seek a third term in office, and was succeeded by President Tony Tan Keng Yam.

After stepping down as President, Mr Nathan took up appointments as Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Yusof Ishak Institute) and at the Singapore Management University’s School of Social Sciences.

Prior to becoming President, he held key positions in the civil service, as well as in security, intelligence and foreign affairs. He was appointed as Singapore’s High Commissioner to Malaysia in 1988 and later Singapore’s Ambassador to the United States of America from 1990 to 1996.

He also served as Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large, and later Pro-Chancellor of the National University of Singapore.

Hillary’s Memoirs–Hard Choices


July 24, 2016

Hillary’s Memoirs–Hard Choices

by David Runciman (June 12, 2014)

 

Hillary Rodham Clinton

Steely determination … Hillary Clinton. Photograph: Cliff Owen/AP

Hard Choices by Hillary Clinton review – buttoned-up but still revealing

What is Hillary Clinton’s strategy for becoming president – sheer persistence? This faintly robotic but impressive memoir is the latest chapter in an amazing story

If Hillary Clinton becomes the next American president she won’t just be the first woman to hold that office: she’ll be the first Secretary of State to get there since James Buchanan in 1857. Unlike in Britain, where foreign secretaries and chancellors of the exchequer routinely go on to the top job, senior US cabinet positions are not seen as stepping stones to the White House. No secretary of the treasury has ever become president. Cabinet officers are meant to be functionaries: people whose job is to make sense of the world. Presidents are meant to be politicians: people whose job is to lead it. In this long, exhausting, faintly robotic but ultimately impressive book, Hillary makes her pitch to be both.

When she lost to Obama following their titanic struggle for the Democratic nomination in 2008, she had no intention of serving in his cabinet. She expected to go back to the Senate and plot her next move from there. So, she tells us, it came as a bolt from the blue when Obama offered her the chance to become the US “diplomat-in-chief”. She demurred, still bruised by the hurtful things that had been said about her from his side during the campaign (most hurtful of all, the charge that her husband, who before Obama used jokingly to be called America’s first black president, was a racist). Obama persisted. It didn’t take long for Hillary to be tempted. She says she liked the idea of following in the footsteps of one of her political heroes, William Seward, another senator from New York who lost his party’s presidential nomination and then faithfully served Lincoln, the man who had beaten him, helping to abolish slavery in the process. She also says she was tickled by parallels with the fictional world of The West Wing, where the president-elect offers his defeated rival the job of secretary of state and refuses to take no for an answer. It’s nice to know that even the people at the top have spotted how often life now imitates TV.

However, this can’t be the whole story. Hillary leaves out any mention of political calculation, saying only that “When your President asks you to serve, you should say yes.” But political calculation is what the Clintons do for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Hillary says she consulted her husband, and it’s impossible to think they didn’t discuss what it would do to her chances of having another crack at the top job. It might not have looked like the most promising route back. But Hillary had been horribly scarred during the 2008 campaign by her 2002 vote as a senator to authorise the Iraq war. Obama hammered her on it, conveniently ignoring the fact that he wasn’t in the senate back then, so didn’t have to face that particular hard choice. The great thing about being secretary of state is that you don’t have to vote on anything: almost all the work you do is behind the scenes. So it’s a job that gives you the chance to craft your own narrative about the hard choices you faced and how you dealt with them, unhampered by the public record. That’s what Clinton does here, telling us about the fights she won and the fights she lost, but always on her own terms. She comes across as consistently hawkish, pushing Obama to take stronger action in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, though more cautious than some of the excitable young people around him when it came to the Arab Spring (his aides, she says, “were swept up in the drama and idealism”; not her). She is able to explain her thinking in detail, making clear that military action always has to be accompanied by a commitment to social and economic reconstruction – not hard power or soft power but “smart power”. The underlying message is that if Obama didn’t always listen, more fool him.

For most of her tenure this political strategy worked brilliantly. As Obama’s first term drew to an end, she was the most popular politician in the country, her poll ratings far higher than those of her boss, since she was untouched by the miserable struggle to get his domestic programme through Congress. Then cameBenghazi. The attack on the US consulate on 11 September 2012, which claimed the lives of the US Ambassador to Libya and three of his countrymen, is the stick that her opponents now use to beat her with. She has been accused of complicity in the disaster (the inadequate security at the consulate is said to rest at her door) and of trying to cover it up afterwards. Conspiracy theories about what really happened abound, though the likeliest explanation for any gaps in the official narrative is cock-up rather than conspiracy: in the heat of the moment different government agencies spun the evidence to cover their backs. But that doesn’t stop the anti-Hillary conspiracy theorists from having a field day.

“…what comes through is Clinton’s sheer persistence. This is how she does politics, by keeping going and totting up the small victories so that they outweigh the defeats. Unlike Obama, who still appears to believe that politics is about rational argument, and unlike George Bush, who thought it was about vision, Hillary believes it is about breaking things down. She is a disaggregator, who can’t see a problem without trying to make it smaller, more manageable, and only then does she try to fit the pieces back together again.”–David Runciman, Political Theorist at Cambridge University

In the US, the Benghazi chapter of this book is the one that has been most eagerly awaited. It is fair to say that Clinton doesn’t give much away. At the same time, she doesn’t give an inch. She stands on her dignity, insists she acted at all times on the best information she had, profoundly regrets what happened, takes full responsibility but refuses to get drawn into the naked politicisation of a human tragedy. It’s not so much a non-denial denial as a piece of non-political politics. Will it silence the critics? Of course not. They will see it as more evidence that she has something to hide. It gives a glimpse of what any future Hillary campaign for the presidency will be like: the Republicans will try to open up her past; she will try to shut it down.

For those reasons, this is a pretty buttoned-up book. But it is not unrevealing. Clinton gives some clear indications of her likes and dislikes. She doesn’t seem to have much time for David Cameron, whom she appears to find too smooth (she much prefers William Hague); she is warily respectful of Angela Merkel; she was almost charmed by Nicolas Sarkozy; she thinks of Vladimir Putin as little more than a thug. Her silences often speak volumes. She says next to nothing about Samantha Power, the leading Obama foreign policy adviser who once called her a “monster”; she makes no mention at all of Anthony Weiner, the husband of her top aide, Huma Abedin, who humiliated them all with the tawdriest of sex scandals (he was the guy who tweeted his penis, then did it again). She says nothing about the state of her health, though it was bad towards the end of her time in office and is likely to dominate speculation about her future. She insists on her sense of humour, which, as so often, is a clear sign that she doesn’t really have one. She lists the number of times she went on David Letterman’s show to make “pantsuit jokes” (telling us the number – it was three – doesn’t add to the sense of fun). She recounts the moment when she tried to lighten US-Russia relations by giving her Soviet counterpart a literal “reset button”, though unfortunately the Russian word for “reset” was misspelt to mean “overcharged”. She tells us she was tempted to send the official responsible to Siberia. Ho ho.

Above all, what comes through is Clinton’s sheer persistence. This is how she does politics, by keeping going and totting up the small victories so that they outweigh the defeats. Unlike Obama, who still appears to believe that politics is about rational argument, and unlike George Bush, who thought it was about vision, Hillary believes it is about breaking things down. She is a disaggregator, who can’t see a problem without trying to make it smaller, more manageable, and only then does she try to fit the pieces back together again. Peace, she tells us, doesn’t necessarily begin with a grand fanfare. Sometimes it comes out of the temporary ceasefire that holds just long enough to make a difference. Part of why this book is so exhausting is its thoroughness: she travels the whole world and tells us about the different challenges she faced, taking them all seriously. Early on she quotes approvingly a maxim from Deng Xiaoping: “Coolly observe, calmly deal with things, hold your position, hide your capacities, bide your time, accomplish things where possible.” The US could do worse than having Deng as its next President.

Hard Choices is a prosaic book, but still, it is an amazing story. Think back to the first time Hillary entered the world’s consciousness, in early 1992, sitting on a sofa for a joint TV interview to try to rescue her husband from the terminal damage that Gennifer Flowers seemed likely to do to his presidential ambitions. It would have been barely credible back then that both of them might one day be president. But there was a true steeliness to that joint performance which gave a glimpse of the future. Their eyes told a story: we are not going away; we can keep going with this; we will outlast anything you have got. Doggedness is not the only political virtue and, God knows, it’s not the most attractive one. But who’s to say it’s not the most important.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/12/hard-choices-hillary-clinton-review-buttoned-up-revealing

Book Review: ‘Worthy Fights,’ by Leon E. Panetta


October 10, 2014

On Actions Taken, or Not

‘Worthy Fights,’ by Leon E. Panetta

by Michiko Kakutani (10-06-14)

Book Review: Ruslan Khalid’s Quest for Architectural Excellence


August 6, 2014

BOOK REVIEW:

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

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

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

Ruslan Khalid

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

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

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

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

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

Product of London’s AA School of Architecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disappointments At Home

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

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

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

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

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

Thwarted Academic The Second Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


June 25, 2014

NY TIMES SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bakri Musa reviews Dr. Syed Hussin Ali’s Memoirs


June 9, 2014

BOOK REVIEW

Malaysian Leaders’ First World Education, Third World Mentality
Review of Syed Husin Ali’s Memoirs of a Political Struggle.
 
Dr. Syed Husin Ali:  Memoirs of a Political Struggle. Strategic Information and Research Development Center, Petaling Jaya, 2013. 273 pp.

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

bakri-musaThe deserved universal condemnation and merciless ridicule of the Malaysian authorities’ bungling of the MH370 tragedy did not arise in a vacuum.

From leaders’ refusing to entertain questions at their press briefings to radar operators ignoring intruding beeps on their screens, this unconcealed contempt for the public, and the accompanying lackadaisical attitude, is the norm.

Our leaders may have had First World education, alas their mentality remains stubbornly stuck in Third World mode. Their bebalism and tidak apaism make the Jamaican “It’s not my job, mon!” a valid excuse by contrast.

To readers of on-line news portals, I am not stating anything new here; likewise to ordinary citizens who have had to deal with governmental agencies. However, when these general inadequacies and gross incompetence in their infinite manifestations are put in print as in books, there is satisfaction, at least to their authors, that they are being documented for posterity. So when Malaysia degenerates (as surely it would) into another Nigeria with its endemic corruption, or Pakistan with religious fanaticism, scholars would have ample materials upon which to base their analyses. Until then these accounts serve as a much-needed antidote to the fluff and gloss that typify Malaysian official reports.

We owe these authors, from ordinary citizens to seasoned journalists, and opposition activists to members of the establishment, a huge debt of gratitude when they record their experiences. Dr. Syed Hussin Ali’s reflective autobiography, Memoirs of a Political Struggle, is one such valuable addition, tracing the nation’s social and political development, beginning with the decade before independence. Despite the title, the book is an autobiography more than a memoir.

Once pedantic readers get past the pedestrian I-was-born opening, the scholar in Syed Hussin gives us an unsentimental and detached view. As a politician, he details the many hypocritical ways of his peers. He relates an occasion when he was on a panel discussion with one Dr. Mahathir at the University of Malaya campus. Mahathir then was not yet prime minister but headed that way through his rising popularity as head of UMNO Youth.

Mahathir chided those “impure” Malay political activists. “Those of Arab descent,” Dr. Syed Hussin quoted Mahathir, “should not have any right to talk about political issues of this country.” His understated nonchalant riposte was, “I do not wish to talk about ancestry for otherwise I will have to talk about the rights of those of Indian descent.”

My purpose with this quote is not to showcase Mahathir’s hypocrisy (readers can readily find their own far more consequential examples) or highlight Dr. Syed Hussin’s not-widely recognized wit, rather to point out one significant observation. That is, you will never find such a panel discussion on today’s Malaysian campuses where contrasting positions would be presented. That is one the many destructive legacies of Mahathir.

Dr. Syed Hussin is, quoting Anwar Ibrahim, “in a category of his own, unique in terms of moral conviction, and not in the business of saying things to please people.” A sociologist, he gave up his productive academic career to turun padang and get involved in electoral politics. He is less successful in this second endeavor. Nonetheless with the victory of his party’s coalition in the last general election, he was appointed as a Senator from Selangor. A well-deserved appointment!

Dr. Syed Hussin Ali had a First World education (London School of Economics PhD), but unlike many in the country similarly blessed, he maintained those First World qualities. As an academic he was not content resting on his sterling academic qualification. His pioneering work on social stratification in traditional Malay society remains widely quoted.

In an enlightened administration, especially one that professes to champion the plight of poor rural folks, a man of Dr. Syed Hussin’s insight and talent would be co-opted to play a major role. Alas, UMNO is far from being enlightened, and its commitment to alleviating rural poverty is more an election gimmick, and a scheme to enrich its operatives through the many “development” schemes. Thus funds meant for poor livestock growers are siphoned to buy luxury condos in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

Three qualities struck me about Dr. Syed Hussin. One, his humility, integrity and piety; two, his early socio-political consciousness, beginning right at primary school; and three, his thoroughly Malaysian experience and outlook. His rural upbringing in Batu Pahat, Johore, has much to do with his humility; his religious parents, his piety; and, being a former King Scout, his integrity.

When Anwar underwent surgery in Germany, Syed Hussin visited him using his own funds. One of Anwar’s operatives tried to reimburse Syed by handing him a bundle of $100 US notes, but he would have none of it. Unable to stop the man, Syed gave the money to his party’s treasurer upon his return. On another occasion, when as a scholar he was given a UNESCO research grant, he returned to his Dean the unused portion. That’s integrity! Anyone else would finagle a way to present his paper at the University of Hawaii or Bali with those leftover funds.

Syed Hussin's Memoirs

Dr. Syed Hussin grew up in colonial Malaya. To today’s young accustomed to incompetence, cronyism, and influence peddling, that was an entirely different era. While he did not hide his nationalistic and anti-colonial streaks, nonetheless that did not stop the authorities from selecting him to attend a scouting jamboree in Australia.

The other aspect to Dr. Syed Hussin’s path is that his schooling, extracurricular activities and political activism all took place in an environment involving Malaysians of all races. That was why he was so offended by Mahathir’s remarks at that panel discussion. He embodies the values and aspirations of a truly modern Malaysian.

Dr. Syed Hussin’s leftwing leanings began early. In a society obsessed with labels, and where political sophistication was rudimentary, it was not wise to identify or be labeled as a socialist, especially when memories of the brutal communist insurgency were still fresh. Dispensing with labels, what is clear is that this LSE educated scholar-researcher is committed to social justice, economic equity, and equal opportunities. What he abhors is leaders betraying their followers’ trust. This betrayal comes in many guises – greed and its associated corruption, incompetence and its bebalism or tidak apaism, or just plain stupidity and ignorance.

I wonder what would be his fate had Dr. Syed Hussin dispensed with labels and joined UMNO like so many like-minded Malays. The Fabian socialists would surely approve of Tun Razak’s generous redistributionist policies and massive state interventions in the economy. After all there was a time when the term kaum kapitalis (capitalist hordes) was an epithet hurled by the likes of UMNO’s Syed Jaafar Albar and Syed Nasir Ismail. Today with the spoils of crony capitalism, socialism is a curse; likewise social justice.

Had Dr. Syed Hussin joined UMNO, would he be as corrupt as the rest or would he be like the snake that would not lose its venom despite crawling among vines, as per the Malay proverb? I believe he would the latter, and the nation would have been richer for his contributions.

I detect a tinge of regret as Syed Hussin recollects his struggles over these years. Being a former sociologist, he of course tried hard to conceal his own disappointments. There is however, no settling of old scores, not even with his old jailors. There is a touching picture of a smiling Syed greeting his old tormentor from the Special Branch. That’s class! Contrast that to the vile-filled memoirs of many recently-retired politicians.

Make no mistake. Dr. Syed Hussin is capable of penning moving prose and be passionate in his writings. I remember reading his Two Faces. Detention Without Trial, and slamming down the book in anger at the authorities’ brutal and inhumane treatment of this great intellect and patriotic Malaysian.

This was his poignant ending to the short opening paragraph in Two Faces:  “One minute I was a professor, the next I was a prisoner.” I suppose his fate could have been worse. Consider that for Egypt’s Morsi it would be, “One minute I was president; the next, a prisoner.”

A generation hence when dysfunctional countries like Egypt would be our peers, we can look back and realize that there were committed and courageous Malaysians like Syed Hussin who tried hard to stem the slime. And our descendents would glow in the reflected glory of his many heroic efforts.