Thursday, December 31, 2009

Politics of the monkey-judge

First of all let me wish all Malaysians a happy new year as we begin 2010. May 2010 be a wonderful chapter in our lives, happy, prosperous, meaningful and enriching as well.

Blogging on serious , high-brow subjects may be out of tune with readers' much deserved holiday and relaxation with family member s and loved ones. But perhaps light story telling would be okay, not too intrusive or much of a ‘card-spoiler’ (kacau daun)

On this very quite first day of 2010, I am reminded of the story of the monkey-judge, which is well represented in many cultural traditions, in various versions. It is a charming story with many insights to reflect upon.

For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the story, it runs such. Two parties are at loggerheads, in heated arguments on their respective rights and claims over a banana. Having exhausted their arguments and patience over the issue, they agree to refer the matter to the court, presided by the monkey-judge, presumably of high standing and great reputation in arbitrating between disputing parties. Both parties agree to abide by the decision of the illustrious monkey-judge.

In the midst of tension and hostility between the disputing parties, the monkey-judge decided to apportion the banana equally in the name of justice. He broke the fruit clumsily and regretfully into two rather unequal and disproportionate portions, with one much longer than the other.
The monkey-judge was however rather pleased with his decision, quite oblivious to his blunder and indiscretion.

Upon being presented with the court decision, the aggrieved party protested vehemently over the injustice of being awarded the smaller portion of the banana and made known to the monkey-judge their displeasure in no uncertain terms. The advantaged party of course welcome the decision , paying great tribute to the wisdom and justice of the monkey-judge.

Faced with the vehement protest of the aggrieved party, and the real prospect of losing their support, the monkey-judge makes amend. He bites the longer portion in the hope of making the two portions equal, but as is customary of a blunderer, he bites more than he can chew, now making the other portion longer and bigger in turn, which of course leads to the same protests all over, only this time with the parties changing their status as the aggrieved or the advantaged, either cursing or lauding the monkey-judge in superlative terms.

Thus the process repeated itself, over and over again, with the monkey-judge continually trying to please and win support, losing sight of his original goal of justice for all. The more he bites, and misjudges, the more discontent he creates overall, with the compliments coming only as a passing or ephemeral phase. In the end, the monkey-judge consumes the whole banana, leaving the disputing parties agape, in confusion and disillusionment…

In a plural society and nation like ours, our beloved Malaysia, leaders can learn a lot from the story of the monkey-judge and the banana, be it BN, PR, DAP, PAS, PKR and others. Politics is not a simple matter of pleasing the crowd or playing up to the gallery. Partisan politics devoid of absolute principles and values such as social justice, fair play, equality, can only make a ‘monkey-judge’ of leaders, taking them no where except a blind alley.

In evolving specific policies and campaigns, such as 1Malaysia or the education policy and education system, BN leaders would have to be mindful of the proper balance between the legitimate interests and rights of the both Malays and non-Malays. Half-baked and naive liberalism, insensitive to history, context and absolute principles and values, may only lead to deeper and new problems, far from solving existing ones.

For both BN and PR, the policy of pandering to one section of the population while alienating another, then wooing back the later, while alienating the former, in a vicious cycle all over again and again, would be counter productive for their politics. In the end it could spell their very downfall as the whole population wises up to their monkey game

PKR, DAP, PAS need to be sensitive and tactful. In our extremely complicated politics with delicate balance, rhetoric, populist tendencies, slogan churning, playing to the galleries will only lead us into blind alley in terms of nation building which improves our lives.

What about the common man in the street, any lesson from the light story? On my part I resolve not to entrust my destiny, that of my family, loved ones, my beloved nation, fellow citizens, to the monkey-judge.That would wreak havoc in our lives!

Wishing you a happy new year once again. I hope my monkey story did not spoil your holiday and merry making!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Mind your planes!

The question of Malay participation in the Singapore Air Force had always been a touchy one, especially before one or two Malay-Muslim pilot had been appointed, presumably in part to address the issue. The official explanation in response to criticism was interesting: an explanation which seems to fuse both ethnic considerations with national security concern. A senior cabinet minister said in a much publicized speech that the Singapore government did not want to put a would-be Malay-Muslim pilot in a dilemma should Singapore be engaged in a conflict with the neighboring countries. The pilot concerned would then be torn between his loyalty to Singapore and his loyalty to his Muslim brothers of the opposite camp. Considering how expensive a jet fighter had cost Singapore, he explained the government simply cannot take the risk of a Malay-Muslim pilot flying a jet fighter over to the enemy camp. Now this suggest very stringent attitude towards national security and defense equipments, even spilling over into ethnic considerations!

Now on the Malaysian side of plane saga, a few days ago Malaysians are hit by the shocking news that two jet-fighter engines had been stolen, each engine worth about MR50 million. The details suggest that through massive and complicated local and international conspiracy, the engines were sold off to an international company based in South Africa. A brigadier-general and 40 armed forces personnel had been sacked last year over the scandal. It is also reported that the police had arrested 4 people, including air force officers. These are scanty details I read in today’s The Sun, front page, reporting on revelation by the prime minister and the minister of defence ( I seem always to be out of step with the Malay Mail mass distribution, finding only an empty kiosk when passing by)

Wow! The Malaysians seem to be much more at ease over the matter of national security and sensitive defence equipments. Kadir Jasin of the Scribe and Rocky Bru is quite right in saying, given the details, what is there to prevent elements like those who traded our jet engines from selling not only sensitive defence equipment but the very integrity of our national security system itself? They seem to be quite above all considerations of national loyalty, patriotism and ethnic loyalties. Only money and greed seem to motivate them.

This scandal should really worry us Malaysians, sweet music though to our enemies. To them, it does suggest Malaysia can be bought easily if you know where the weak link in the chain is, and work it to their advantages.

I find the prime minister’s statement in today’s paper perplexing. Though calculated to reassure the public there was no cover up in the matter, I remain to be persuaded. He said, according to the report: ‘Mindef took the position that we had to address this and take action, even criminal action, against those involved’ Was Mindef of two mind over the course of action to be taken upon discovering the debacle? So much so Mindef had to ‘take the position to address this and take action, even criminal action? Shouldn’t this be a matter of course, instead of being recounted as a process requiring mulling and great deliberation? Why ‘even criminal action’? Was there remote possibilities of it being non-criminal and innocent? Or was there reluctance and hesitation over the course of taking criminal action? The prime minister gives credit to the RMAF and Mindef for having ‘no intention of covering up at all. In fact, we went forward to the police. At that time I was minister in charge. I decided we should report it to the police’. Well..was it really a difficult decision on the part of a cabinet minister, worth recounting and taking credit for? Further more, excuse me for saying so, the issue really is how could it have happened and who should take the final responsibility for failing to prevent it in the first place, The issue is not whether to report it to the police or not or whether action should be taken or not! And lastly,reading the details given by the minister of defence, and the chief of the armed forces, on how investigation had to be conducted 'discretely', away from public attention, they do suggest in essence a 'cover up' of sort.

The above post does not pretend any analysis or evalutation over the issue. I am still in a state of disbelief as to the extent of degeneration in our national integrity and resilience. I am just stating the facts and relevant information.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

KPI: a 1Malaysia original?

Recently, with the change of premiership or leadership in Malaysia, the government had introduced in a big way the practice of KPI. The Prime Minister had announced to the public how he intends to vigorously evaluate the performance of his cabinet ministers and his administration through the use of the management inspired tool of KPI. The basic intention behind this move is of course to signal to the public his seriousness in ensuring good leadership for the nation, in line with the slogan of 1Malaysia ‘the people first, meritocracy emphasized’. This is all good of course, very laudable.

The idea of a prime minister vigorously evaluating his cabinet, or any leader evaluating members of his ruling clique under whatever political system, is of course natural, basic in politics and nothing new. This is because any leader worth his salt will know that the ineptitude or incompetency of his lieutenants could mean his very downfall, or at the very least undermine the credibility of his government or reign.

The Malaysian government has however introduced new elements in the use of KPI, all of its own. While the KPI has usually been a tool used internally in most institution to ensure efficient inner workings, with the view of ensuring group efficiency which could then be projected to the public, the Malaysian government had publicized the use of the KPI itself, presumably deeming it as a means of improving its image in the public’s eyes.

I find this move rather perplexing, raising questions why has it done so? Does the government think that the idea of leaders being evaluated is so alien to the Malaysian public that they need to be educated on this new life experience through publicizing the government’s use of the KPI? Or could it be because the practice of evaluating government leaders is something new for government leaders themselves, never properly instituted in their midst, hence the use of the KPI achieving the status of a great ‘reform’,’novelty’ among them, making them feel it is therefore of ‘public interest’ to be capitalized for political mileage? To be sure the Prime Minister had denied that the KPI publicity is merely rhetoric and that he is serious about implementing it. Still, this is beside the point why the government has chosen to publicise its use of KPI. The point is when what is for others a natural process, a matter of course, important but otherwise ordinary, is given the treatment of a ground breaking reform, it does suggest somewhat a recent discovery and novelty of practice.

And then there is the question of how is the public really involve in this KPI exercise? Presently, they are involved merely as spectators of the government’s use of the KPI. They are not really involved in the process of evaluating the leaders within this KPI exercise. This seems to remain the sole prerogative of the prime minister, which should be the case. But then why involve the public at all, albeit as spectators? If the argument is that the public is indeed involved because they are free to submit complaints, we would be missing the point. This facility or avenue has always been open and remains the public’s prerogative, even without the much publicized KPI.

Recently the public had really been cast as spectators to the government’s use of the KPI. Amid much fanfare, two ministerial posts had been created to oversee the government use of the KPI. The public is informed on the internal administrative details of the KPI. Few days ago, a cabinet minister had to correct the mass media in misreporting that only ten out of twenty government agencies had submitted their reports. The good minister had explained to the public that all twenty agencies had submitted their reports on time without exception, but the prime minister has had the opportunity to read only ten of them, given his busy schedule!

A few months ago, the two cabinet ministers had to explain to the public the line of reporting in the matter of KPI. To public inquiry as to which of the two cabinet ministers involved with KPI is to report to the other, one of them explained that he is solely in charge and all reporting are to him. All manner of administrative details are made public, but alas not the substance of the evaluation itself!

A few days ago, before flying off to Copenhagen, the Prime Minister announced to the public that he is satisfied with the performance of his government in the key performance areas. Indeed this is good news for us since the government, going by the prime minister, is in good working order. It raises some questions, however. Who is the KPI for? If it is just for the Prime Minister’s public exercise, isn’t there a conflict of interest here? Politically speaking it is a bit unrealistic for us to expect any Prime Minister to say he is unsatisfied with his own government? No Prime Minister would be willing to commit political suicide with the use of his very own KPI! Given this, perhaps it is best that the government keeps the KPI as a vital management tool for its internal use in upgrading the quality of governmental leadership.

I think it is fair for me to say that by and large the public is not too interested in the administrative details or the bureaucratic aspects of the goverment's use of the KPI. What the public is more interested in is not so much the mere use of the KPI but the actual honest and open evaluation of the leaders. And we can be sure too of one thing. With or without the KPI in its structured form as introduced and publicised by the government, the people will in their own way ‘KPI’ the government before casting their votes. I am sure in doing so they are quite indifferent as to whether the prime minister is satisfied or not with his own KPI on his government agencies!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ethnic quota on Malay reserve land?

While surfing, I chanced across a Bernama report dated 7 December 2009, posted on the Malaysiakini website. The caption ‘Dasar 50% kuota bumiputra ditangguh’ looks interesting and contentious enough I thought, given the current political development in Malaysia. Contentious I thought because it touches on some basic issues like the continuing tension between ‘liberalization’ or free enterprise and the question of Malay rights.

According to the Bernama report, the implementation of the new housing policy in Kedah which stipulates 50% allocation for bumiputra had been put off until a new clearer guideline is issued. This move was prompted by protests from NGOs and political parties of various races over the issue of Malay reserve land being converted to freehold land. The general policy of raising the housing allocation for bumiputra from 30% to 50% was announced by the Menteri Besar, Datuk Seri Azizan Abdul Razak, to be effective from 1 September 2008.

To my mind, merely deducing from the scanty facts in the Bernama report, the problem starts when the state government made a serious blunder. Thinking in terms of ethnic quotas in relation to land matters proves to be very problematic in Malaysia, given its history. Take for instance the matter of Malay reserve land. The Malay reserve land policy was formulated and implemented long before Independence, even longer before the New Economic Policy. Therefore it is really a political blunder for the PR state government to extend its hostility towards the NEP to the Malay reserve land policy, as if they are one and the same.

The Malay reserve land policy was promulgated between the British and the Malay States, even before the birth of independent Malaya or Malaysia. Hence to carry over their phobia of ethnic quota of the NEP into decisions over land matters, particularly of Malay reserve land, reflect either unconscious or conscious anti-Malay sentiments on their part or simply ignorance of history.

It is such characteristic blunder of PR that contributes to the murkiness of Malaysian politics today. Too much had been lumped under the boogey man ‘NEP’. Now the question of Malay reserve land had been laid at the door of ‘NEP’. They had taken it upon themselves to ‘correct’, ‘liberalize’, ‘democratize’, ‘reform’ or to ‘equalize’ the anomaly called Malay reserve land. In this way, all things ‘Malay’ can now be maligned under NEP. It is the same proclivity to over generalize and caricature on the part of PR that blames all ills of Malaysian society explicitly on UMNO and implicitly on the Malays. Obviously such trends are not conducive for the development of a democratic discourse in our political process.

It is to be expected that the new housing policy of the Kedah stated government would encounter problems. I wonder what would be some of the protests from the NGOs and the various political parties? The Malay position would find it difficult to endorse or support the proposed policy. From their point of view, why should Malay reserve land be converted to freehold with only a 50% allocation for them? Isn’t this giving up part of their land? Though in all probability the Malay reserve land had been compensated elsewhere, normally in a less valuable or desirable location, naturally they would resent the idea of giving up their claims on half of the converted land, especially when the land value had escalated in that particular area.

As for the non-Malay position, I suppose it would be the old continual resentment and protest against Malay rights and allocation, all of familiar ring to their resentment towards the NEP. I suppose in their understanding or expectation, it should be just like colonial times when the dichotomy was just that of either Malay reserve land or freehold, with the later free of any form of stipulation, especially in favor of the Malays.

Hence massaging the figure from the magic 30% of NEP to 50% would not really endear the state goverment to the people of Kedah, be it Malays or non-Malays.Many would simply see it as a sleight of hand to favour the other party against their own community.

One lesson I would draw from this episode on the new housing and land policy of the Kedah state government. It is not that easy to push aside or ignore the reality of the ethnic imperatives in our politics, given the history of the nation. Another lesson would be, politicians of both divide, be it the ruling party or the opposition, in all states, and at the national level, should never loose sight of our history and historical context when championing their cause.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Government of the individual, by the individual, for personal clients?

The Star dated 4 December 2009 carried an interesting news report on the front page with the caption ‘Mother’s tears pays off with citizenship for girl’. It recounts how, Mrs Chong , a distraught mother waited for eight hours to meet Datuk Seri Hishamuddin personally at the UMNO generally assembly in October to plead the case of her daughter’s  citizenship. Her persistence had paid off, with her 17 year old daughter being granted Malaysian citizenship on 3 December 2009.

Shedding tears of joy, the 45 year old mother recounted her story: ‘ I met the minister at 6 pm on that day and at 7 pm, I received a call from his press secretary to enquire about my daughter Vivien Wong’s application.’ She continues with evident and justified gratitude: ‘Her citizenship application was approved in less than a month, thanks to Hishamuddin”

I am happy for Mrs Chong and her daughter Vivien Wong on their success. Kudos to Datuk Seri Hishamuddin for his attention in clearing the matter.  As human story, the episode is indeed touching and heartwarming. It portrays a mother’s love and devotion, the wonderful gift of precious citizenship to a young girl and the gallant act of a political leader while in office. It bespeaks of  benevolent leadership and a caring government, augering well for the nation.

And yet the story strikes me precisely how our democratic Malaysian nation should not be! A democracy and its institutions should be about impartial laws and policies, accompanied by due process in their implementation. The doctrine of the rule of law ensures all parties are clear as to their responsibilities and rights, be it with the leaders as well as citizens. The laws and principles function objectively or justly, where the citizens can expect some measure of reliability and certainty as to their hope and expectation.  Of course there are always some grey areas for judgment- call and discretion on the part of the executive, but in great measure the rule of law demands impartiality and objectivity in its operation based on clear principles.

In this regard, to my mind, the case of Mrs Chong and Vivien raises many questions as to the soundness of our democracy.  Why did she had to beg and plead the case in those circumstances before being accorded the due attention and necessary action. It took more than a decade before she could make any headway and even then it was through her resolve and desperate act of which we read. Would Vivien’s citizenship application have been processed in not for the act of personal pleading or ‘begging’ on the part of Mrs Chong?  Could there be many other similar cases pending for decades simply because other mothers had not seen the light to plead their case in similar fashion as Mrs Chong?

To me, the case should have been a straight forward one, to be decided on clearly defined laws, policies and principles. It is either Vivien was entitled to citizenship or  she was not, to be decided impartially or objectively according to due process of the law or policy, leaving a minimal ground for personal arbitrariness. Accordingly, Mrs Chong pleading and desperation should not have been necessary, nor would the ‘gallantry’ of Hishamuddin in ‘bestowing’  citizenship.  In other words, in my understanding the decision should have been arrived on ‘democratically’ and not ‘personally’.

Mrs Chong’s said something which does not auger well for our democracy. According to her she met Hishamuddin at 6 pm, and by 7pm she received a call from the Minister’s press secretary enquiring into her application and appeal. Wow! That’s immediate attention and service for you. But just what had  happened throughout the decade that had gone by? Why should Mrs Chong desperate act make all the difference? The case should either be a legitimate one, which should have been given due attention and deliberation more than a decade ago, or it is not legitimate, in the case of which personal pleading or ‘begging’ should not radically alter the status and the merit of the case altogether. Which is which? Would the case have been buried for another decade had it been otherwise? As to the political secretary, would he have been equally concerned and diligent in his exercise of duty if the circumstances had been different?

This case and the surrounding human story touch on a major malady of our democratic Malaysian nation. Our leaders as well as citizens have the mistaken notion that power is personal and arbitrary, which can and ought to be wielded thus by the individual office bearer. The consequence of this mistaken notion is a weak notion of the rule of law, due process of law, the legitimate extend and limit of power, public accountability, citizens’ duties and rights, indeed of the democratic spirit itself in general.

I chose to highlight the case in the belief that has greater significance for our nation well beyond it. It reflects a serious flaw in the working of our nation. To those bold enough to admit, in Malaysia in many areas of life, a lot depends on personal networking, on whom you know, with whom one rubs shoulder with, on family ties, on ‘pulling strings’, ‘knowing lobang’, ‘golfing partners’, ‘kakis’, ‘drinking buddies’, and many other modes of personal ties and relationship forging patronage and client relationship between office bearers or power holders and the public. This has been the fountain spring of corruption, nepotism, cronyism, favoritism, highhandedness,arbitrariness,precariousness that scourge our national life. It has been the force that undermines our democratic spirit and understanding, and derails our democratic progress from its proper path.

I pray we can combat this malady together as Malaysian citizens, genuinely concerned for the restoration and advancement of our genuine democratic understanding and spirit. We need to do this because it is downright impossible to have a working democratic system while the spirit animating and guiding it runs counter to democracy and its guiding principles.   



Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Whither our democratic culture?

We have yet to evolve a democratic culture in Malaysia. Yes, we do take part in the election, but a democratic culture is much more than simply casting a vote once every four or five years. Apart from this hallmark of modern democracy, our political life doesn’t seem to reflect the other integral aspects of a truly or more matured democratic culture.

For instance we often hear of conflicts or feuds in political parties between factions and cliques, but, though occupying the centre stage in terms of media coverage and public consciousness, we cannot say really what are the major issues or contention between them. Is it a case of competing vision and philosophy for their parties, a significant difference in terms of policies, priorities and strategies, all in the name of the genuine interests of society and nation? Or can it be a debate on fundamental principles of leadership, devotion, commitment and idealism?

Invariable after following the news for a while, one gets bored and tired of it because it all boils down to the jostling for power and position between individuals, each backed by their hence men and supporters. A case in point would be the long drawn squabble in MCA. What are the issues really, of significance to society and nation? The same can be said of the going on in the MIC.

Of course cliques and faction would camouflage their bid for power and position by adopting the high moral ground, while stigmatizing rival groups as ‘immoral’, ‘unethical’ or any other labels that undermine their legitimacy to lead. But beyond this propagandistic idealization of personalities, and character assassination of rivals, what are the substantive issues reflecting a matured or developed democracy?

Right to this day, it would seem that the democratic spirit and tradition is still lacking in UMNO. This is clearly borne out by the last posting by Dr Mahathir Muhammad or Che Det. It would appear that far from developing a genuine democratic culture within its fold, UMNO is more inclined towards thwarting or stunting it, thus getting closer day by day to political suicide. According to Dr Mahathir, divisional leaders are blocking the entry into the party of younger, better educated, more capable people. These leaders feel more secure when they recruit instead yes men and those who condone and accept their corruption. As election candidates are normally nominated and chosen from this level of divisional leadership, it is such elements that invariably rise to prominence and national leadership in the course of time. Hence we have a vicious cycle of bad and corrupt leadership for the party, society and nation.

Can UMNO ever hope to survive, without breaking this vicious cycle? How can it ever hope to win back the mind and heart of the Malay masses without genuine democratic reforms against such self-sustaining and self-perpetuating force of corruption and decadence at the core of its power and leadership structure? I will emphatically say UMNO will perish into oblivion in no time!

I should like to note that though I have not made specific mention of the opposition parties, judging by the discussions and analysis in the media, I don't think the state of democratic culture within their folds is any different or better. Just casually survey the various commentaries on PAS, PKR and the  DAP widely circulating in the media.

Our fundamental problem is that we still need to evolve and develop a truly democratic culture. Our elite and leaders still cling on to the old and undemocratic notion of power. According to this notion, reminiscence of feudalism really, power is personal, arbitrary, conferring of position, privileges, and personal gains or interests. Power is much coveted and keenly contested for these reasons. This is poles apart from the democratic notion of power, where power is defined and closely regulated by democratic rules and institutions, limited only to legitimate functions of serving the interests of the people and the nation. In a genuine democratic culture, power and authority are conferred only to enable and empower leaders to lead and serve the people and the nation, and not for personal aggrandizement by individuals, their families, hence men and loyalists.

It seems to me if our very conception of power is undemocratic, I am not wrong in saying that our ‘democracy’ has a long way to go before achieving the status of a more matured and responsible democracy, both on the part of leaders and citizens.