Government’s Role in Managing Unemployment

This is illuminating – the essayist argues that government policy can do much to reduce unemployment; among other things, the essayist argues for protection of infant or threatened industries. Sebenarnya even Americans know that trade protections are necessary to protect jobs, even as they preach to developing nations to dismantle theirs. The hypocrisy of it all!

The Secret Political Life of Corporations

This is an interesting analysis of politics-related activities of corporations, using the notorious now-bankrupt Enron as an example. I wonder what the analogous datasets would be for Malaysian corporation. What is definitely true is that our political financing realities in Malaysia are still definitely mired in Third World norms.

The Malaysian University System, and the Urgent Need for Reform

This is an interesting take on the college diploma/degree as a means for signalling academic/professional aptitude and capability. Certainly, a system that has evolved over the latter part of the last millenium is becoming increasingly anachronistic in its ability to be a reliable indicator of a graduate’s ability to perform in the workplace. (Of equal or even greater concern, of course, is the ability of the university system to become a transmitter of culture, erudition and civilisation across generations, but that is a whole other debate.)

Especially for Malaysia, situated as we are within a burgeoning Asia-Pacific region where the competition for talent will become more fierce in the coming decades, the university system requires deep and critical scrutiny. Clearly we are producing too many graduates, a significant number of whom seem to be unsuited for the demands of the modern global economy, if statistics on graduate unemployment are any indication.

At some point, when we are ready to cast our collective critical eye over the reforms required for tertiary education in Malaysia, some things need special attention:

  1. Imbuing graduates with the necessary language and communication skills. Too many employers today lament our graduates’ ability to communicate in English, that global lingua franca of business and knowledge. But even more so than the facility with language per se, our universities seem to be churning scores of graduates who do not have the personality and confidence to assert themselves in the workplace. Perhaps it is the preponderance of rote learning; perhaps it is the fact that Malaysian universities treat their students as if they were schoolchildren, mollycoddled and chastised in equal terms; perhaps our schools do not prepare their students well enough to become good graduates, and in turn, good workers and citizens. But certainly our universities are not doing enough, or simply not doing the right things. Creating capable and confident graduates must involve institutions taking the risk to allow their students to give full force and flight to their thoughts and convictions.
  2. Inculcating curiosity and the continuous desire to learn. Many policymakers insist that universities need to partner with industry to ensure that their curricula are relevant to industry’s needs. But the reality is that no amount of curricula changes can be adequate to catch up with the rapidly evolving nature of the real world. Rather than feeding their students the fish of contemporary knowledge, universities need to teach their students to fish for knowledge, constantly and desirously. Curiosity and a compulsion to learn are the only way that graduates can ensure they are truly future-proof, and able to evolve and learn as their professionals develop and grow over time.
  3. Injecting a sense of ethics and values. The term “white collar crime” was fashioned for criminal acts of theft, corruption and other malfeasances committed by those exemplary members of society who typically have had the benefit of a good education and upbringing. In the wake of Enron, Madoff, Tyco and other egregious instances of crimes committed by highly-educated professionals, many top-tier MBA schools have begun to increase the emphasis on ethics and values in their curricula. This is all well and good. If anything, I would argue that a more comprehensive approach to ethics and values need to be introduced, especially at the university level when such abstract concepts can and should be debated. And I don’t mean the dry “Pendidikan Moral”-type motherhood statements that often fill the moral education textbooks in the Malaysian education system. Rather, I would have students review the moral teachings of the great religions, and debate the morality of protagonists in great works of literature. There is much that Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, can teach our students about morality, ethics and the human condition.

The university system has a unique role to play, as a “finishing school” of sorts for those destined to be the leaders and professionals of our nation. We ignore the great need for reform, at our own collective peril.

1374778814-crimeandpunishment heart-of-darkness_joseph-conrad

Leading the Charge for Malaysia

This is a good take on the recent controversy surrounding the TPPA negotiations. Many complain that “Tok Pa” is too cautious, that he is not the right person to be leading the Ministry in charge of leading Malaysia’s interests in the negotiations. But I think that he is an earnest and sincere man, and I believe that he is as good as any man to go up to bat for Malaysia, and to defend our interests with wisdom and calm confidence.TPPAAustraliaBridge

The Age of Design

This is a good review of the new Apple iOS7. Proof, if any was needed, that we are truly entering an Age of Design, where refinements in aesthetics become a key differentiator in saturated and competitive markets such as smartphones. Expect this to cascade into many other unrelated industries where design sensibilities become the main distinguishing point for products and services…


Burying the Memory of Chin Peng

It must have been a prank of fate, that just as Malaysia was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its formation, two of its most historic nemeses stole the headlines. Not many Malaysians would have known that one of the towering figures of history who led the formation of Malaysia – Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew – would have celebrated his 90th birthday on that very same day, 16th September.

The other historical figure, communist leader Chin Peng, barged his way into Malaysian history too. After decades of fighting against the British colonial forces, and later, the independent Malayan government that inherited the administration of the country from the British, Chin Peng had gone into exile after the 1989 ceasefire. On 16th September, he passed away in Bangkok, after failing twice in appeals to return to Malaysia.

Of course, in Malaysia’s current charged political atmosphere, the issue of Chin Peng returning to Malaysia became yet another political flashpoint, hotly debated by both sides of the political divide.

Leading members of the DAP were quick to advocate for the remains of Chin Peng to be buried in Malaysia. They argue that Chin Peng was a nationalist who fought for independence of Malaya against the hated British colonials. They also argue that we should let bygones be bygones, and that it was time to forgive Chin Peng. Karpal Singh said: “once a person was dead his past was irrelevant.” Others pointed out that Chin Peng was even decorated by the British for his contributions in the fight against Japanese occupation. Even MCA jumped into the fray; one MCA leader argued that Chin Peng was a communist, yes, but not a terrorist.

Umno leaders, perhaps predictably in the run-up to party elections in October, quickly denounced any such plans to have Chin Peng be finally laid to rest in Malaysia. Home Minister Zahid Hamidi asserted that Chin Peng was a terrorist leader, and not an independence fighter as alleged. Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein called Chin Peng a “traitor who had undermined national sovereignty.”

Where is the truth in all this? The following are my own meditations on the issue, partly informed by recent readings of history, but certainly also coloured by my own recollections:

History is rarely black and white, as textbooks and apologists alike would want us to believe. Yes, Chin Peng fought against the Japanese. Yes, the British decorated him for his role in resisting the Japanese occupation. But Chin Peng didn’t stop there. He fought the British, when they came in and imposed a military administration in the wake of the Japanese currender. He fought the Malayan government, which by 1957 was a sovereign government when Tunku and his colleagues took over from the British. And yes, he fought against Malaysia too, when it was formed in 1963.

To call Chin Peng an “independence fighter” is too simplistic. Yes, he was fighting against the Japanese, but in order to impose a communist state in Malaya. Some argue that the Malayan government post-1957 was still a British construct. Perhaps, but by 1955, this was also a government that was duly elected by its people. And at no time in Malayan history, or even Malaysian history, could it be said that there was a plurality of Malaysians who wanted a communist state.

The fate of Malaysia would have been very different, if Chin Peng had won. Many of those who decry the Government’s stand against Chin Peng’s appeals to return to Malaysia, are those same people who consistently call out the Malaysian government for allegedly clamping down on freedoms, for limiting free speech and many other transgressions against liberal freedom.

But as we can see from the fate of Russia, China and other countries run by communists, they have very little interest in such niceties as free speech. Gulags, “struggle sessions” and other hallmarks of repression have entered the lexicon of politics by way of communist rule. It is doubtful that many of those who claim to speak for Chin Peng’s right to return to Malaysia, would have enjoyed much rights under a Chin Peng administration.

There is a racial undertone to the Chin Peng issue, which shows how far we still have to go as a nation. When I was growing up, parents would bid their children to shush by invoking Chin Peng, or Botak Chin. The former was especially effective, and for good reason. For those of my grandparents’ generation, the memories of “Bintang Tiga” filled them with dread and bitterness. Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper drew attention to the confrontations between Malay villagers and the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (the MPAJA, which was a fore-runner of the Malayan Communist Party) in the interregnum following the Japanese surrender in August 1945.

After Malaya’s declaration of independence, the communists continued to struggle against the government, which was by this time led by Umno and its partners in the Alliance. The police force, which was mostly Malay, bore the heaviest brunt of the communist insurgency. Many lost their lives in the struggle to defend the sovereignty of the newly independent nation, against the communists, the latter who certainly had a radically different vision for Malaya.

These are painful and bitter memories, which cannot be erased merely by platitudes or artful concealment of shared history. Only the unceasing tide of time and the passing of generations can possibly put enough distance between those memories and the coming future when we can truly dissect the issues with complete honesty and candour.

My own take is: let him rest in exile. He certainly had his own reasons for militating against his own country, and we can perhaps forgive him for having a different vision for Malaysia. But the bloodshed and terror of those years are hard to forgive, let alone forget. As much as we should respect his desire to want to return to his country of birth and lay down his burden after years of struggle, those who fought and died defending Malaysia against his militancy, and hence protecting our way of life today, must certainly lay greater claim to history’s favour.



(An edited version of this blog appeared as a Letter to the Editor in the 20th Sep 2013 edition of the NST, here.)