Leadership by moral legitimacy

June 7, 2015

Leadership by moral legitimacy

by Graham Harris*

*After completing a degree in Botany and PhD in Plant Ecology atgraham_harris Imperial College, London in the late 1960s, Professor Graham Harris worked at McMaster University in Canada for 15 years where he became a Professor of Biology and carried out research on the ecology and management of the Laurentian Great Lakes.

He came to Australia in 1984 and worked for CSIRO for over 20 years where he held many research management and senior executive appointments. Graham has worked in a range of disciplines including plant ecology, freshwater and marine ecology, space science and remote sensing. He was the foundation Chief of Division for CSIRO Land and Water, and until 2003 he was Chairman of the CSIRO Flagship Programs. After completing this task he stepped down as Flagships Chair and was made a CSIRO Fellow. He left CSIRO in early 2005.

Graham is the Director of ESE Systems Pty. Ltd., a consulting company specialising in research into, and the management of, complex environmental, social and economic systems. He is an advisor to a range of universities, research agencies, private companies and government jurisdictions both in Australia and overseas.

Graham is an Affiliate Professor at the Centre for Environment, University of Tasmania and an Honorary Research Professor in the Sustainable Water Management Centre at Lancaster University, UK. He was awarded the CSIRO Chairman’s Gold Medal in 1996 and was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering in 1997. In 2002 he was elected a life member of the International Water Academy, Oslo. He was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal in April 2003 for services to environmental science and technology. Graham has published more than 140 papers, and three books. His latest book Seeking sustainability in an age of complexity was published by Cambridge University Press in June 2007.


The_Thinker_in_NTHU_TaiwanThe Thinker @NTHU, Taiwan

We still seem to be fighting Cold War battles over whether neoliberalism and individualism – the “bottom up” strategy – is the best model for modern democracies, or whether more state intervention – the “top down” control model – is preferable. The debate in the West is quite brutal with polarized politics and biased media coverage frequently providing only a partial view.

[The Web does however provide an antidote to the prevailing ethos by providing access to other points of view; blogs by George Monbiot and Harry Shutt for example.]

When confronted by complexity most of the decisions we must make are not just uncertain they are logically un-decidable (see Pascal Perez’s comments on my last post). The fundamental problem is that “facts” and models in such situations are under determined; they are inevitably supported by beliefs about what counts as evidence and what constitutes a proof, and values creep in. Without an appropriate moral stance to aid decision-making these limitations are becoming ever more obvious.-G. Harris

As we find we have to deal more and more with systems of systems – which requires both systems thinking and an appreciation of complexity – we are finding that simple slogans and remedies do not suffice (even though the air waves and the Web are flooded with them). To quote H.L. Mencken “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” The predominant debate is too simplistic and does not provide sufficient nuances or sophistication.

I am reminded of David Berlinski’s concluding words in “On systems analysis: an essay concerning the limitations of some mathematical methods in the social, political and biological sciences” (1976): viz. “Grand efforts brought low by insufficient means”.

When confronted by complexity most of the decisions we must make are not just uncertain they are logically un-decidable (see Pascal Perez’s comments on my last post). The fundamental problem is that “facts” and models in such situations are underdetermined; they are inevitably supported by beliefs about what counts as evidence and what constitutes a proof, and values creep in. Without an appropriate moral stance to aid decision-making these limitations are becoming ever more obvious.

Faced with such a situation we have both a knowledge problem and a collective action problem – and they are inextricably intertwined. The conjunction of constraints, complexity and community provides us with a perfect epistemological, political and moral storm. There is a moral space for communities to fill, but it is presently vacant. We require a new approach.

David Colander and Roland Kupers in “Complexity and the art of public policy: solving society’s problems from the bottom up” (2014) – hereafter C&K – have provided an alternative – middle ground – view on how to organise institutions and economics in a complex world. They favour what they call laissez-faire activism – combining both top down and bottom up innovation and facilitation. In a complex system of systems knowledge will always be partial, and neither the market nor state regulation will be able to provide complete solutions. History shows us the truth of this.

We can do without the brutal debates between the political right and left (they are more and more indistinguishable anyway), between the positivists and the relativists or between, say, the followers of Hayek or of Keynes. Indeed C&K show how the debate has been engineered to deliberately polarise the political and economic landscapes. The original positions of many intellectual luminaries were much more nuanced and sophisticated than is now made out. It is the old story: the messiah got it right – just beware the disciples.

Through the air waves and the Web we are flooded with emotivism. The polarised Western debate is no more than this. Statements of the form “this is good” can be taken to mean “I approve of this: do so as well”. Our moral debate consists mostly of shrill, impersonal assertions; our language of morality is in a state of disorder.–G. Harris

As Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued in “Cosmopolitanism: ethics in a world of strangers” (2006) the prevalent liberalism and positivism favours the belief in value free (scientific) “facts” because we can hold and assert our own individual beliefs. Values, on the other hand, are more about things we share and how we deal with each other in communities. So values require us to discuss and debate their context and efficacy, but because the mantra is “there is no such thing as society” we rarely do this.

C&K take an optimistic view of people as “smart and adaptive” and argue that the role of government is to set norms for behaviour and to provide leadership by moral legitimacy. They agree with Kwame Anthony Appiah who argued in “The honour code: how moral revolutions happen” (2011) that it is morality and values – our shared norms – that best regulate how we deal with each other and our environment.

Alasdair MacIntyre in “After virtue” (2007, 3rd Ed.) has argued that one of the main failures of modernity has been the demise of morality and the instrumental behaviour of bureaucrats and corporate managers in commercial and institutional settings. There is much confusion of means and ends and people and the environment frequently get used and abused. This is also true of politicians and politics and it explains why there is an evident and rapid decline in trust.

Through the air waves and the Web we are flooded with emotivism. The polarised Western debate is no more than this. Statements of the form “this is good” can be taken to mean “I approve of this: do so as well”. Our moral debate consists mostly of shrill, impersonal assertions; our language of morality is in a state of disorder.

At the moment there seem to be few sanctions for unethical or even criminal behaviour in many spheres of public life. Despite clear indications of criminal activities associated with the financial crash of 2008 and of irregularities in global markets since – collusion and market rigging – very few sanctions or criminal prosecutions have been pursued. Worse there is no evidence that anyone feels shame or remorse. The guardians have been inactivated.

Environmental degradation is, likewise, a moral issue. No amount of attempts to monetise environmental values or design market-based instruments will alter this. Easily quantifiable substances like water and carbon dioxide may be traded, but for complex 2nd order cybernetic entities like ecosystems everywhere is different. Concepts like markets for ecosystem services and biodiversity offsets are therefore a fraud. We cannot swap like for like and ill-defined incommensurate values cannot be monetised. Offset payments to a conservation fund are a sop for the conscience.

To arrest the decline in trust and moral behaviour Appiah and MacIntyre argue that we need a return to concepts of virtue, honour, shame and esteem. To grease the wheels of society we need a debate about codes of honour that are compatible with morality and professional ethics. We can have positive regard for people who meet certain standards of behaviour and we can sanction those who do not. Those standards need to be debated, clearly stated and enforced.

C&K see a key role for government in providing the leadership and in setting those norms. Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit have noted in “The economy of esteem: an essay on civil and political society” (2005) that because we all (should) have a stake in making society work the cost of policing an honour world is very low and we do not have to worry about who is guarding the guardians. We all have a role to play.

Now I am sure some will argue that liberalism and modernism have defeated such outdated concepts, but the failings of Western politics since the 1970s are now clear: instrumental reason, rising inequality, environmental degradation, lack of political will and moral corruption. Governance and leadership by moral authority and legitimacy? Now wouldn’t that be something to behold!

Stephen Colbert interviews Neil deGrasse Tyson

May 27, 2015

Phnom Penh

Stephen Colbert interviews Neil deGrasse Tyson


Have a great morning. My dear friend and former Wisma Putra colleague, Dato’ Hamzah Majeed, now a respected educator at Chempaka School Group told me that I should watch this interview with the man from Bronx, New York City. I just did and Neil deGrasse Tyson is an interesting and entertaining man of science.

To know his background, please read this:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neil_deGrasse_Tyson –Din Merican

Good Ideas but bad policies on Education

February 17, 2015

Good Ideas but bad policies on Education

Ambitious education policies don’t work because they are premature given the current inadequacies of the system.

COMMENT by Wan Salman Wan Sallam

Although he is actively critical of the Najib Administration, Tun Dr4th PM of Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad seems to be still in possession of his sense of humour. He quipped recently that he’d want to be Prime Minister again if he had the chance. He said one of the things he would do would be to bring back the teaching and learning of Science and Mathematics in English (PPSMI).

PPSMI is one of the many things he gave the nation during his tenure as Prime Minister. It was intended as a means of globalising students at an early stage. But things didn’t turn out as nicely as they should. It did not, for instance, succeed in narrowing the gap of educational opportunities between the urban and rural populace.

The problem of availability of extra materials and classes to reinforce learning has always been more severe in the rural areas. To worsen the situation, English language education has always been less effective in the rural areas. It is an open secret that in schools with large majorities of Malay and Bumiputera students, English teachers speak more Malay than English during lessons, perhaps thinking that this would help the students better understand the lessons. This happens even in secondary schools.

The students therefore do not have enough opportunities to communicate in the language, let alone enhance their skills. At the end of the day, they essentially don’t learn much. They experience problems not only with English, but also with understanding the basics of Mathematics and the Sciences. Thus the urban-rural gap is widened even further, and we can conclude that Mahathir’s policy was premature and problematic. It was premature because it was implemented without the conditions being ready for it.

After Mahathir retired, PPSMI was abolished and Science and Maths are now taught in Malay again. A problem may have got solved, but another one arises.

A step forward

In 2014, the Ministry of Education introduced a more thorough implementation of the School-based Assessment System (PBS). Formerly, it was implemented mainly in the form of oral tests for language subjects.

DPM of MalaysiaIt is good that we have finally found a way out of an extremely exam-oriented system and made a step forward. But yet again, the implementation was premature, with the pre-conditions not satisfied beforehand.

The enhanced PBS makes it necessary for teachers to keep updating students’ achievements in the system, adding yet another burden to their teaching duties.

Generally, we can assume that a classroom has about 40 students. Unlike a university lecturer, a school teacher must get to know his students individually and constantly give them personal support. Now that they are burdened with greater workloads, their chances of nurturing the pupils through the personal touch are reduced.

It has been reported that nearly 30% of schools in Malaysia are categorised as “schools with very small numbers of students”. One would think that the PBS system would work better in these schools. But no, 90% of these schools are poorly funded. Some of them even operate in other schools’ buildings and use their facilities. These schools, due to having few students, practice multi-grade teaching. As far as we can see from the environment of these schools, this is not a conducive condition for the implementation of PBS.

If that isn’t bad enough, the PBS management system (SPPBS) adds to our compilation of the worst things about PBS. With the system continually lagging if not hanging, we have another huge burden to add to the tons of workload already piled upon the shoulders of teachers.

Furthermore, the Internet speed also argues against the implementation of the online system. According to an Asean report, Malaysia’s average Internet speed is only around 5.5 Mbps, far from the global average of 17.7 Mbps, let alone Singapore’s 61 Mbps. Even Vietnam beats us.

With the implementation of PBS, both teachers and students are expected to make use of information and communication technology (ICT). But from a study done in a rural secondary school by a team from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, almost 80% of the students don’t have computers at home and more than 50% of them are not competent enough to use them. In fact, 70% of them get to use a computer for only about an hour a day. A good 42.9% don’t know how to use Microsoft Word and 60% aren’t familiar with e-mail.

PBS is, after all is said and done, another premature education policy. So if Mahathir wants to be PM again or if anyone else has the ambition to take over from Najib Abdul Razak, I’d ask him to please make sure that education policies are made to be compatible with current conditions. What is the point of an education policy if it benefits only a certain group of people, and a small one at that?

Wan Salman Wan Sallam is an FMT reader

With a firm belief in freedom of expression and without prejudice, FMT tries its best to share reliable content from third parties. Such articles are strictly the writer’s personal opinion. FMT does not necessarily endorse the views or opinions given by any third-party content provider.

A Modest Proposal for the Champions of Ketuanan Melayu: Part III

A Modest Proposal for the Champions of Ketuanan Melayu

Last of Three Parts:  Leveraging Residential Schools

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

bakri-musaIn Parts One and Two I suggested that we should focus on enhancing Malay competitiveness and productivity instead of forever begrudging the success of non-Malays or bemoaning the presumed deficiencies of our race and culture. We should begin with our young, the best of them, those at our residential schools. Have high expectations of them, put them through a demanding program, and expose them to rigorous competition.]

The key to any high performing school is the teachers. Both Korean schools (Daewon and Minjuk mentioned earlier) actively sought graduates of top universities to be on their staff. Such highly qualified teachers inspire their students. And when it comes to writing letters of recommendations, those teachers carry much weight, especially when students apply to their teacher’s alma mater.

You do not need and it is impossible for all your teachers to have sterling credentials, only that there should be a critical number of them to set the tone and change the culture. Besides, there are many excellent teachers who are graduates of lesser universities.

mckkThe Malay College Kuala Kangsar, Perak

Look back at MCKK of yore, with Oxbridge and London University graduates on its staff. At KYUEM, a local college prep school with exemplary record of student achievements, most of its teachers are local but there are sufficient graduates of top universities, including the headmaster, to set the pace and establish a high academic ambience.

On another level, it would be difficult for a local graduate to understand the intricacies and nuances of applying to top foreign universities, or the challenges of attending one.

With the present pay scheme there is little hope to recruit such top graduates. This is where the private sector could help by sponsoring highly educated foreign teachers. Petronas sponsors Formula One and the KL Philharmonic. Why not economics teachers for MCKK? Such “endowed” appointments are very common at American schools and colleges. If MCKK were to charge wealthy parents it could also hire its own foreign teachers.

You do not have to pay as high a salary as in Singapore or South Korea as Malaysia has much cheaper living expenses. Thailand has no difficulty getting excellent expatriate teachers at US$30-40K per annum.

For every three students we send abroad, we could recruit two American teachers and benefit many more students at home. In terms of actual loss of foreign exchange, it is far cheaper to recruit one American teacher than to send a student abroad as that teacher’s salary would be spent locally with the attendant multiplier effect, while the entire student’s scholarship money is expended abroad.

Such highly-paid foreigners would not generate resentment from their local colleagues. Local teachers at KYUEM are paid less than their expatriate colleagues yet they do not resent the preferential treatment. Of course if you do get a Malaysian who is a graduate of a top university and is an excellent teacher, then he or she too should be paid as well as the foreigner. There should be differential pay based on the quality of the teacher, not citizenship.

Apart from recruiting from abroad, there are Malaysians who are graduates of top universities whom, given the augmented pay, SBPs could employ as teachers, or at least tap as mentors.

Policy Makers and Executors

Stable, competent, committed, and inspiring leadership; those are the essential ingredients to a successful organization, more so a school. The headship of SBP should be a terminal appointment. There should be nothing else after that except retirement and glowing in the reflected glory of your students’ success. The appointment should never be a stepping stone for someone on his way to be Undersecretary for Procurement at the Ministry.

The headmaster should also serve for a sufficient term. As Howell noted, “No headmaster can leave his mark on a school and have a lasting influence on its development in under five or six years.” He or she must also be a graduate of a respectable university, again to set the tone. He need not have an advanced degree. Given the choice, all things being equal, I prefer someone with a good bachelor’s degree over a candidate with a higher degree but from a less stellar institution.<

Like great individuals, little is known about nurturing great institutions. One thing is certain however. Like individuals, if institutions are held under tight control and not given the freedom to grow, they will quickly become sclerotic and unresponsive. The job of policymakers is to select capable individuals to helm these schools. Once that is done, they should be given the leeway to carry out their mission without micromanagement from the ministry.

This means SBPs must have full autonomy–academic, administrative, and financial. They hire and fire the teachers. The ministry’s lever should be at the macro level, as with selecting the board of governors and through funding.

SBP’s measure of success should only be this:  number of their students ending up at top universities. All other measures, except where they contribute to this singular goal, are irrelevant. At Speech Day the headmaster should be announcing which top universities his or her graduating students would be attending, just like the graduation exercises at top American prep schools.

The policy does not end with these students being accepted to top colleges. They must also be assured of a scholarship and then be given the freedom to choose whatever field of study. If they are smart enough to be admitted to those top institutions, then they are smart enough to plan their future wisely, certainly better than those folks at JPA, MARA, or Khazanah.

It pains me to see bright young Malays pursue a course of study for which they have minimal passion because that is the scholarship they were being awarded, based on supposed “national interest.”

Providing scholarships for matriculation (sixth form) is misplaced. I would wait after the students have been accepted to a top university. That would free them to choose whatever route (matrikulasi, twinning programs, Sixth Form, IB, or A level) that best suits them. Meanwhile use those funds to support IB and “A” level programs at SBPs to benefit many more students.

After they have graduated, do not tie their hands with rigid rules like having to return immediately or work for a specific entity. Grant them some freedom. If they are offered graduate work or a job abroad, let them. Do not stand in the way of their pursuing their aspirations.

The only stipulation is that they should serve the nation in whatever capacity they see fit for a specified period during the first decade after their graduation. Only when they fail to do so would they have to reimburse their sponsor.<

GLC and Private Sector Participation

Khazanah through its subsidiary already has a successful model–KYUEM. It prepares students for “A” level. That is more productive in developing quality human capital than the route Petronas and Tenaga chose in setting up their own universities, which are nothing more that puffed-up technical colleges. Khazanah is also involved in joint ventures with the government through the “smart school” programs.

There are other ways for private sector involvement. One is the current system of letting anyone set up a private college and charge whatever the market will bear. That would benefit only the few wealthy Malays.

An alternate route would be for Khazanah to pursue its own path a la Singapore’s Raffles Education Group. Freed from governmental strictures, Khazanah could lead the way with its string of prep schools modeled after KYUEM. Without the residential component, the cost would be considerably less. Then it could proceed to a university, modeled not after local ones but the likes of the American University in Beirut or the Aga Khan University in Pakistan.

Education is as valid a sector for private investment as tourism or health. It is doubly profitable, enhancing both human and financial capitals. It would certainly be more productive than pouring money into a floundering airline.

It is time for Malays to discard the old destructive narrative of the “lazy native” imposed upon us by the colonialists and slavishly perpetuated by our intellectually-indolent “nationalists.” When the colonialists concocted that narrative, they benefited from it. It was their rationale for bringing in hordes of foreign indentured labor. When our latter-day Hang Tuahs aped that, they only made a monkey out of themselves. What benefit do they derive by denigrating our culture and nature?

4th PM of MalaysiaWe need a modern relevant narrative, grounded in solid social science. Our problems stem from our being not competitive and productive. Fix that and we solve our problem. Bend our rebong now and a generation hence our bamboo groves would be more to our liking. By then we could not care less whether the likes of Perkasa’s Ibrahim Ali and Tun Mahathir would eat their words. They and their myths would have long been forgotten.

Stanford University, Palo AltoStanford University, Palo Alto, California

As for me, Insha’ Allah (God willing) I look forward to one day meeting many young Malays at San Francisco Airport on their way to Stanford and Berkeley. That woulbe the sublime and truest expression of Ketuanan Melayu.

Whither Malaysia, asks Balan Moses

September 19, 2014

Whither Malaysia, asks Balan Moses


Balan-Moses-ENG NEW-1The 51st Malaysia Day came and went, and life as we know it in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak continued without much change. It has been pretty much the same for decades with little achieved by way of emotional attachment between the two parts of the country separated by nearly 1,000 miles of sea.

While a large number of East Malaysians work and study in the peninsular, the same may not be said about Orang Semenanjung working and studying in Sabah or Sarawak. I know of students from the peninsular studying at universities in Sabah and Sarawak but am not sure of their overall numbers. I also know of members of the uniformed forces from Sabah and Sarawak stationed here.

I made my first acquaintance with Sarawakians in the mid-70s at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang where they proved to be a friendly but sometimes rambunctious lot, especially after a few drinks. They generally wore their emotions on their sleeves and what you saw was what you got.

Malaysia2After learning about them in geography at school and from stamps in the early and mid 60s, it was refreshing to meet some of them in person and know more about their culture and traditions.Malaysians in the Peninsular in general still don’t know much about their brethren in Sabah and Sarawak and vice versa with the same ignorance and prejudice that existed decades ago still prevalent on both sides.

The Semenanjung Malaysians still at large look at Sabahans and Sarawakians as distant cousins best kept at arm’s length, a sentiment probably stronger in the two states across the South China Sea with the traditional suspicion of “Orang Malaya” still very much alive and kicking.

The fear that Peninsular folk will change the East Malaysian way of life due to their numerical superiority, stronger finances and an arguably better knowledge of the twists and turns of life still persists. The safeguards for Sabah and Sarawak contained in the points of agreement between Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak is testimony to the 51 year old fact that that Sabahans and Sarawakians have always felt the need to be protected from us across the pond.

I would like to talk about the possible reasons for the formation of Malaysia in 1963 by leaders from Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore.I will not go into Singapore’s exit from Malaysia in 1965 as that is a topic to be elaborated upon in a future column.

First Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, probably foresaw the advantages that Malaya would accrueTunku Abdul Rahman from a merger of North Borneo, Sarawak, Brunei and Singapore with their relative strengths in terms of population and natural resources.

Sabah and Sarawak would have been on the radar of both Indonesia and Philippines prior to the formation of Malaysia as later events would prove true.Tunku, the great statesman and visionary that he was, would have seen the possibility of the larger neighbours eyeing the huge tracts of land in Borneo at some point and pre-empted them with his Malaysia proposal.

That it was taken up by the majority of Sabahans and Sarawakians was proof that their sympathies lay with Malaysia with their common British heritage and not with the Philippines with its Spanish legacy or Indonesia with its Dutch colonial background.

Why then is there limited assimilation among West and East Malaysians? Is this by accident or design? The very fact that Sabahans and Sarawakians asked for and received special privileges at the formation of Malaysia is probably proof that they wanted safeguards for the long term to preserve their way of life and practices.

Can we expect this to remain for the foreseeable future?Yes. This is a distinct possibility as East Malaysian politicians by and large agree that they want to rule their land through home-grown political parties although UMNO has anchored itself in Sabah. Sarawak is a different kettle of fish as the people of the Land of the Hornbill have always jealously guarded their relative independence by supporting indigenous political parties. The exception would be the DAP which has won several seats in the state largely through Chinese support.

So where does this leave Malaysia in its 51st year? Probably where it has been for some time now with the cracks in the political and cultural mosaic intact for years to come. The large number of East Malaysians in the peninsular, however, engenders greater assimilation with the Orang Malaya with more intermarriage bringing both parts of Malaysia closer.

I, for one, would like to speed up the process with greater interaction despite the daunting distance between us. How shall we take this off?