Sunday, June 24, 2007



Jakarta 1982, a bustling and sweltering city of ten million, a city of contrast between the ignominious wealth of the elite class and the appalling poverty of the urban poor.

This is a city of "macet", a perpetual gridlock. Getting caught in a macet in a taxi without a/c (Indonesian version of air-con) can be a horrifying experience, not only the heat and dust will wear you down, the assortment of smells from rotting garbage to open sewers can overload your olfactory organs.

By the time I reached my destination, the Jakarta Hilton Hotel, I was about half an hour late and had to apologise profusely to my host who was at the lobby to meet me. Most Indonesian are superficially polite and placable, giving an impression of warmth and friendliness and can be quite comical in their ways.

My host said "Jangan susah Pa, ini perkara biasa, kan ini Indonesia, lambat saminggu pun masi boleh diterima".
I couldn't agree more with him on that issue. Indonesian aren't well known for punctuality, Malaysians not much better, American, Japanese and European are stickler for keeping time and the Arabs the worst timekeeper in the world. 
I hate to generalise but my personal experience have shown that Japanese, American and European came top in time management. Arabs are the most inconsiderate of all people, no matter how Western educated there are, they have no respect other people's time. The old adage "time and tide wait for no man" is definitely not in their dictionary. 
Am I making racist remarks? I don't think so. I am stating an empirical fact through the eyes of my journey to various countries and connecting with the people and cultures of the places I have visited. The Middle East is one dreadful place to do business.
When we arrived at the restaurant there were already three other Indonesians at the table, I guessed, must be Rustam's business partners or friends. After formal introduction we sat down to our sumptuous meals and made small talks about business, politics and about the many similarities of Indonesian and Malaysian cultures and last but not least, a usually tabooed subject ..... religions.

This was where I made my first mistake by saying something that trigger off a fevered argument which, on hindsight, was an eye opener for me to the great divide between the two countries.

I implied that Indonesia being the biggest Islamic country in the world would one day become a nation of fundamentalists with strict syriah and hudud law. At that very moment I could feel the tension and unease I have caused to my Indonesian friends.One of them retorted in Bahasa Indonesia "Itu kan salah pemifikiran Bapa, Indonesia tidak mungkin sampai begitu, disini yang penting bagi rakyat Indonesia ia lah 'Pancasila' bukan ugama, seperti di Malaysia. Yang sa benar nya kami di Indonesia kurang senang dengan keadaan di Malaysia, dimana fundmentalis Islam bergerak pentas dan akan mengambil kuasa pemerentah jika tidak diberi perhatian". My second mistake was to disagree with him and he went on to say "Jika Bapa mahu tahu kami di Indonesia memberi name itu "MALAYSIAN DISEASE", takut-takut akan merebak ka sini nanti".

My Bahasa Indonesia isn't all that great, the English version would be something like this "Your opinion is wrong, Indonesia will not come to that, here the most important thing to every Indonesian is the 'Pancasila', not religion, like in Malaysia.As a matter of fact, we, in Indonesia are worried with the situation in Malaysia where fundamental Islam is getting a strong foothold and spreading fast and may take over power in the very near future if nothing is done now to keep it under control", and he went on to say "If you really want to know, in Indonesia, we called it the "MALAYSIAN DISEASE" and we are afraid it may spread over here"

The reality of his statement struck me almost twenty five years later.

Up to now Indonesia has no syriah law.The state does not interfere with how Muslims should practice their religion. There are no moral policemen to nap courting couples, no enforcement officers to catch Muslims who do not fast during Ramadan, no interference in mixed racial or religious marriages and no compulsion to stay in Islam if one wishes not to.

In 1984, I attended a conference "International Business Environment" jointly organised by International Herald Tribune and Oxford Analytica. It was a three-day conference from 11th-13th April held at Magdalen College, Oxford University. Discussions and dialogs covered all five continents with particular emphasis on countries that had shown rapid economic growth and potentials for future sustainable economic growth.Each participant was given a booklet that gave background information on the regions covering social, political and economic aspects of the countries within the region.

I will confine my story to the Asean region in general and Malaysia in particular. Malaysia came under the South East Asia region.

South East Asia was the fastest growing region in the 1970s with an average growth of 7.5% for the 1979-1981 period.The ASEAN economies experienced unprecedented high economic growth of between 6-9% for two decades--until the world recession at that time.The area's entrepreneurial spirit prompted by hard-nosed Chinese diaspora and good government fiscal policies helped inspire investors' confidence.

The following are brief extracts from the booklet:


Malaysia must still be regarded as one of the more stable members of ASEAN.It is prosperous and, despite the effects of the global recession, is likely to become more so in the later 1980s and 1990s.

Nevertheless there are constitutional, religious and socio-economic problems to face.None pose an immediate threat to the country's relative stability; but, as with any multi-racial, multi-lingual and predominantly Islamic nation with a wide gulf between rich and poor, conditions exist for long term tension.

The country's medium term outlook is dominated by three major concerns:

--firstly, the delicate constitutional balance between elected politicians and the Sultans.There are likely to be continuing conflicts between progressive democrats and those who believe that certain powers should remain with the traditional rulers;

--secondly, the recent rapid growth in the influence of Islam overlaps the constitutional struggles.The Islamic movement is notionally headed by the Sultans and other traditional rulers.Decisions which cause affront to the Sultans could inflame Islamic passions already smouldering under the influence of global Islamic revival.

--thirdly, there is a long term threat to Malaysia's comparative serenity stemming from the complex and ambitious economic reorganization launched in 1971, the New Economic Policy.The NEP has its main target a massive increase in public ownership by the Malay (or bumiputra) community.By 1990, the NEP architects say, bumiputra participation in the economy should be at least 30%--a target which non-Malay critics say is too high.But the firm implementation of the policy suggests that some of the targets will be realized.After 1990, though, any further favouring of the bumiputras might exacerbate tensions between the racial groups--a spectre which, since the 1969 race riots in Kuala Lumpur, remains at the back of all Malaysian ruler's mind.


The most developed and most stable of the ASEAN countries continues to be dominated by Lee Kuan Yew, and his policies of activist and international economic management.


Thai politics are at a point of stalemate.Groups opposed to the continuing dominance of the army--the urban middle class and rural peasantry--are, if anything, more opposed to each other.

Thailand has the appearance of a systemically unstable state, and it is.But paradoxically, Thailand's chronic instability gives it a unique form of long term political stability--no matter how many times the regimes change, and there have been 14 coup attempts in the last 50 years, the ultimate effect, and the type of government, is invariably the same.


Indonesia is experiencing a number of internal problems, largely concerned with the breakdown of the law-an-order, and the criminal activities and alliances of some opposition politicians. General Suharto has utilized draconian techniques to deal with the problem. Units of the Indonesian Special Forces--the KOPASANTA, headed by General Murdani--have engaged in a ruthless programme of arrests and killings.

This programme, widely condemned by the international community, appears to have been effective, and the urban areas--in which the middle classes felt very insecure--are now considerably safer.


The Philippines is the sick man of ASEAN.The political situation looks set to reach a crisis point in the not too distant future, and the country now has the dubious honour of being the first ASEAN member to require debt-rescheduling.Total debt now exceeds US$18 bn and credit rating is very low.Even with rescheduling, the country's reserve position is precarious.

The grand finale of the conference was a grand banquet at Blenheim Palace with Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former President of France as guest of honour.It was a memorable night and gave me a glimpse of the opulence surroundings of the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchhill.

As the focus of my story is on Malaysia, I will not comment on the other countries.

Let us ponder for a moment on the accuracy of some of the assessments made in the booklet.

There were two constitutional crisis during Mahathir's time. The first one, was the sacking of the Lord President Tun Salleh Abbas in 1988 and than followed by the 1993 constitutional crisis with the Sultans.

However, as Mahathir influence and support with the masses and the beholden were strong he managed to push through the constitutional changes.

The other even more menacing problem was the growing influence of the Islamists which pose a serious threat to the racial and religious harmony in Malaysia.

The Lina Joy case was a prime example of the influence it has on many branches of government including the judiciary. The acquiescence of the Lina Joy judgement showed all is not well in the country.The people had no choice but to reluctantly accept the unacceptable.Her case has reached the end of the road. She either leaves the country or face the consequence of her action at the sharia court, which by now should not have any jurisdiction over her as she is no more a Muslim. The case of the forced burial of M.Moorthy as a Muslim inspite of strong protest from his Hindu widow has sparked outcry and strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction among non-Muslim. There were also cases where children were taken away from their mother, wife taken away from husband, non muslims arrested for close proximity and a civil court sent a Hindu to seek redress from a Sharia Court.

The Islamists movement has intensified since current Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took over the reins from Mahathir. The moral policemen had become completely blind in raiding Muslim couples.They brought shame to the country when they tried to arrest an elderly non-muslim foreign couples in the wee hours of the morning.

Places of entertainment were raided, young muslim girls hauled up, handcuffed, insulted and arrested.Is this the begining of the Talibanisation of Malaysia? Are we going to end up like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, wrecked by their extremely distorted beliefs of the religion? It was obvious that the state of sobriety is gradually breaking down and the government didn't want to intervene for fear of losing the politicial support of the Malay community. For UMNO it is "damned if you do, damned if you don't".

Malaysia, blessed with abundant supply of natural resources, high literacy rate, fairly good public administration and good infrastructure has, over the past three decades, been transformed from a tropical backwater into one of the largest exporting nations in the world. The growth rate over the past three decades had been quite impressive and commendable. Its financial management could have been better if greater care were taken in public spending. The NEP, a child born out of the May 13 race riot was introduced to uplift the economic standard of the Malays, to be at par with the Chinese and other non-Malay.

Unfortunately, over the same period, it has lost its noble objective and was used as a gravy train to facilitate wealth for those in power and those close to power. The late Tun Razak, main architect of the NEP, would have been utterly shocked if he could see the abuses encapsulating the NEP . Never in his wildest dream would he had planned to use the NEP to enrich those in power. The late Tun Razak and late Tun Ismail were gems during their time.Corruption at the top was unheard of. It was not for nothing they called the late Tun Dr Ismail as "the man who saved Malaysia".

Government projects given to selected people were given with over inflated prices and, more often than not, the project would not be worked by the recipients but sold on "ali-baba" basis. Many projects were on "design, build and transfer" method with minimal or zero supervision from the relevent authorities. The spate of cracked highways, cracked buildings and host of other problems are the consequences of this unorthodox method of awarding contracts. Even some of those using the conventional contractual method were not spared the unscrupulous and unconscionable actions of irresponsible leaders and contractors.

Unsheathing of the keris and beating of the war drum a while ago by a Malay warrior named Hishamuddin, gave the NEP a new lease of life and was extended indefinitely, the reason being, Malays were still lagging behind and have not yet met the desired equity ratio.A warning shot was also fired to warn the Chinese and others not to make an issue out of it, it was an irrevocable social contract, not to be questioned

Hishamuddin may have underestimated the importance of the Chinese to this country and miscalculated the role they played in the economy and prosperity of the nation. The 28% Chinese were the major economic engine of the country and contributed about 70% of GDP. Majority of companies listed on KLSE were dominated by Chinese. Even worse, almost 90% of retail business were under their control. The Malay equity on KLSE were mostly held by GLCs and very small portion came from individual Malays.

Was the May 13th race riot a true harbinger of the NEP ? To continue the NEP indefinitely may be perilous to Malaysia, probably the only country in the world, that have affirmative action for the majority.

Since its inception in 1971, the NEP has shown to be counter-productive for the Malays as reflected by the unattainable equity participation. It is almost thirty five years since the NEP was first introduced and the Malays failed to catch up.

Much of Malaysia economic achievements have been contributed by the non-bumiputra communities.Unfortunately, very little recognition were given to them. Only former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, after stepping down did casually mentioned that the Chinese paid the most taxes.

How could you build a competitive Malay society if the dependency syndrome must continue ? How could anyone appreciate wealth if it can come so easy and so quickly?

It's high time the government take serious view of the NEP and formulate alternative policy that can effectively create a competitive Malay mindset.

Don't simply put it on the platter. Educate!, educate!, educate! is the only way.

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