Nationalism in Malaysia in Extremis


November 17, 2016

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Nationalism in Malaysia in Extremis

by Dr. Ooi Kee Beng

Image result for Hidup Melayu

Malay Nationalism or Tribalism ala Ku Kluk Klan

One thing that shocked me when I first went to Sweden for my studies 35 years ago was how dirty a word “Nationalism” was in Western Europe. This reaction, I realized, was very much a reflection of how the concept was positively implanted in my mind while a schoolboy in Malaysia; but it also demonstrated how greatly human experiences can differ in different parts of the world.

More importantly, it revealed to me how strongly we are intellectually captured by the language use of our times and our location.

But the Swedes are very proud of their country, so how come nationalism is frowned upon so badly? The same thing applied throughout Europe, at least until recently. Excessive immigration over the last two decades, coupled with declining economic fortunes and waning self-confidence has buoyed the ascendance of ultra-rightists groups in all countries throughout the continent.

So why was Nationalism so despised? Europe is after all the home continent of the Nation State.

For starters, Europe was always a place of endless wars often fought ostensibly for religious reasons between feudal powers. The arrival of the Nation state ideology helped to lower the frequencies of these tragedies, but only to replace it soon after with non-religious types of rationale for conflict. The American Revolution and French Republicanism added the new phenomenon of “government by the people”. The French case also brought into the equation the Left-Right Dimension that would define politics and political thinking for the next two centuries.

This conceptual division between Popular Mandate and Elite Rule expressed sharply the rights of common people on the one hand, and the role of the state on the other. Once this gap was articulated, conflating the two poles anew became a necessary task.

The three major articulations in Europe of this mammoth mission to bridge the divide and achieve a functional modern system were Liberal Democracy, Communism and Fascism. While the Anglo-Saxon world championed the first, Stalin’s Soviet Union perfected the second and Adolf Hitler developed the third to its insane conclusion. In Europe, it was basically these three actors who fought the Second World War.

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Malay Tribalism in Action

In Asia, Japan’s brand of state fascism ran riot throughout the region, rhetorically championing nationalism in the lands it took from the European colonialists.

While the National Socialism of the Third Reich died with Hitler, Fascism lived on in Franco’s Spain until 1975 and Nationalist Communism of Stalin continued in Eastern Europe until the early 1990s.

Nationalism in the rest of Europe after 1945 came to be understood with disdain as the longing of the Nation State for purity and autonomy taken to pathological lengths. It is after all always a defensive posture, as is evidenced today in its return in the form of right-wing anti-immigrant groups.

Image result for Hidup Melayu--Najib Razak

Maruah Melayu dijual ka-Cina untuk membela masa depan politik Najib Razak–Jualan Aset 1MDB

In Malaysia, nationalism was—and for many, still is—the most highly rated attitude for a citizen to adopt.There are obvious reasons for this, given the historical and socio-political context in which Malaysia came into being. Constructing a new country out of nine sultanates, the three parts of the Straits Settlements, with Sabah and Sarawak on top of that, was a more daunting task than we can imagine today. Furthermore, the contest was also against other powerful “-isms”, especially Communism and Pan-Indonesianism. These threatened to posit what are Malaysia’s states today in a larger framework, and would have diminished these territories’ importance and uniqueness.

Putting a new regime in place of the retreating British required a rallying idea; and what better than the very fashionable image of a new nation to whom all should swear allegiance. Malayan nationalism was thus born.

Image result for tunku abdul rahman

For Inclusive, Liberal and Progressive Malaysia–Escaping the Nationalism Trap

It is no coincidence that the path to independence became much easier after Malaysia’s major political party, UMNO, decided under Tunku Abdul Rahman to change its slogan from the provincial “Hidup Melayu” [Long Live the Malays] to the inclusive “Merdeka” [Independence].

But already in that transition, one can see the problem that Malaysia still lives with today. Is Malaysia the political expression of the prescriptive majority called “Melayu” [later stretched to become “Bumiputera”], or is it the arena in which the multi-ethnic nation of “Malaysians” is to evolve?

Image result for Trumpism in America

Nationalism in essence, and most evidently so in its narrow ethno-centric sense, is defensive and fearful, and understood simplistically and applied arrogantly very quickly show strong fascist tendencies. The issue is therefore a philosophical one.

What Malaysia needs today, is to accept the regional and global context that sustains it, and work out as best it can a suitable balance between Popular Mandate and Elite Rule which is clearly less belaboured and less painful than the cul-de-sac alleyway it has backed itself into.

OOI KEE BENG is the Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute) and the Editor of the Penang Monthly (Penang Institute). He is the author of the prizewinning The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr Ismail and His Time (ISEAS 2006).

The Guardian Book Review: Nick Clegg’s Politics


September 11, 2016

The Guardian Book Review

Politics by Nick Clegg – A painful read

by David Runchiman

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/08/politics-by-nick-clegg-review

Clegg Politics and Cameron rose garden

How long does it take to decompress from the extraordinary pressures of holding high political office, especially when it ends really badly? Bereavement takes at least two years. Nick Clegg suffered a kind ofpolitical death last May, with the added misery of having it played out in the full glare of the cameras. Yet here he is, barely 16 months on, with a book reflecting on his experiences, most of it written presumably in the still raw aftermath of his humiliation. Of the five stages of grief, Clegg seems to have got beyond denial, but he is a long way from acceptance. This is the work of someone stuck between anger and bargaining. The result is a pretty painful read.

In his introduction he promises us something different: a step back to reflect on what’s gone wrong with politics and how to rescue rational, liberal discourse in an age of populist anger run amok. But as such a visible victim of that anger, he keeps scratching away at his personal wounds. Take tuition fees: he fronts up about what a disaster it was to renege on the Lib Dem promise not to raise them, and in particular to be bullied by the NUS into having every Lib Dem MP (Clegg included) sign a pledge promising to vote against future rises. He also admits to being too easily swayed by the demands of leading universities to solve their funding problems. Vice-chancellors were going “nuts”. “If only I had dug in my heels and let them go nuts,” Clegg writes with the benefit of hindsight. So why didn’t he? Partly, he says, because he had too much else on his plate. But it still sounds weak. Getting outmanoeuvred by bolshy students and antsy academics was not a good omen for dealing with far tougher opponents, including those he faced inside the coalition government.

Clegg insists that the Lib Dems were caught between a rock and a hard place on tuition fees and the final policy was the fairest compromise they could muster, with safeguards built in to protect less advantaged students. He says the anger the issue aroused was “totemic”. And though he tries hard to take his medicine, he can’t resist a few whines of self-pity. The two main parties are hardly “paragons of consistency”, so why is this the U-turn everyone remembers? He blames himself for not having at least tried to delay the decision so that it didn’t overshadow everything that followed. But he also blames the British political system for making everything so tribal, with the decent people in the middle getting squeezed.

As a result, he ends up sounding like just another politician. It wasn’t the policy that was wrong, it was the way we communicated it: that’s the fallback of every failing government. His complaints about the unfairness of the system also betray a more basic problem. Throughout, Clegg expresses his surprise and regret that voters were not prepared to credit the Lib Dems for their willingness to compromise for the sake of good government. He says they had no choice but to join the coalition after the 2010 election: anything else would have revealed the party to be fundamentally unserious about power. It would also have let the country down at a perilous economic moment, with the public finances in desperate need of stability. Yet the Lib Dems got no reward for this seriousness of purpose, nor for all the hard work they put in over the next five years to moderate Tory extremism and deliver sensible policies in testing circumstances. Clegg can’t really have been surprised. As he also admits, this has been the fate of junior coalition partners almost everywhere: they get punished for their compromises by voters who see it as evidence of weakness. What’s so special about the Lib Dems that they should have been viewed differently?

Clegg’s bemusement that the British electorate could not see how much good his party had done is either disingenuous or startlingly arrogant. And for all its self-flagellating moments, there is a streak of arrogance running through this book. Clegg keeps telling us that he took decisions on their merits, having done his homework, unlike his Tory partners in government who were more often looking for party political advantage. But why should we think that the deputy PM – especially one as overworked, understaffed and strung out as Clegg tells us he was during his time in government – has some special insight into “the right thing to do”? He would have been better off focusing more on party political advantage for his own side. The absolute priority for the Lib Dems from the coalition agreement was constitutional reform, above all a change to the first-past-the-post voting system. But they got hammered in the 2011 AV referendum, after the Tories did everything in their power to undermine Clegg personally (even using the tuition fees fiasco against him), and Labour saw it as a chance to get in a few cheap shots. Clegg calls all this depressingly short-sighted by the other parties. But given where focusing on the long-term interests of the country has left him and his party, who looks short-sighted now?

The best way for minor parties to survive coalition government is to find some means of maintaining a sharply distinct identity. Clegg thought the Lib Dems should muck in where they were needed, which was fatal. He tells us of his many behind-the-scenes triumphs facing down Cameron and Osborne when they went too far. He wants us to know he’s a lot tougher than he looks. But he never attempted to humiliate them publicly, in the way they repeatedly humiliated him. Nor did he try to peel them off from each other or simply cause trouble for its own sake. It’s hard to think of any occasion when Clegg managed to embarrass the coalition deliberately rather than inadvertently. He was above that sort of thing. So he got crushed in the end.

A further sadness hanging over this book is the result of the EU referendum, which is referenced in a few last-minute tweaks to the text. The causes Clegg has stood for all his life – Europeanism, cosmopolitanism, liberal compromise – are in disarray. At the end of Politics he tries to take stock of what’s brought us to this point – economic stresses, cultural shifts, technological changes – and though he has no real solutions, he refuses to give up on liberal optimism. He hopes we will sooner rather than later rediscover how “to behave in a less tribal way, be civil to one another, be supportive of each other’s efforts to hold the government to account”.

But he knows this is easier said than done – especially since he is not immune to some tribalism of his own. In describing his political formation during the Blair years, it’s clear that a dislike of the Labour party – or the “Labour machine” as he calls it – runs in Clegg’s DNA. He would have found it incredibly hard to enter government with Labour; the Tories were always his preference. To call Clegg himself a secret Tory is unfair. He was his own man, liberal in his instincts, serious-minded, earnest, level-headed. He is totally plausible when he says that he never got caught up with “Cleggmania” following his performance in the first leaders’ debate during the 2010 general election campaign. His “Dutch blood” has made him “immune to great rushes to the head”. Still, given the ultimate failure of his time in government, he might have been better trying to access a bit more of his inner Tory bastard.

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.