Friday, October 10, 2014

Indo-Pacific Review

Just a bit of self promotion here. I am now a monthly contributor to the Indo-Pacific Review, a new source of analysis and commentary on South East Asia. I will write mostly on Malaysian transportation policy. I've written four pieces so far, most recently on the future of Malaysia Airlines. Click here to read that piece.

If you'd like to read my other pieces on public transit investments and petrol subsidies, the three articles on these topics are here.

There are plans to restructure the website, and I am unsure where on the website my future articles I write will be located, but the arrangement is for my work to be published on the 15th of every month.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Time for a pivot in Malaysian Foreign Policy

The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 by surface-to-air missiles has sparked chatter that it is an "Archduke Ferdinand moment," that it will spark a global war. While such postulation is absurd, no nation is stupid enough to allow the tragedy to spark a world war, this could and should be a pivotal moment that changes Malaysia's approach to foreign policy.

Developing nations often remain neutral in world affairs out of self interest. With few resources to dedicate to foreign affairs, countries like Malaysia stayed out of the cold war, and even established the non-aligned movement, NAM, to cement the fact that they would not take sides. By being neutral, these developing countries didn't have to participate in economic sanctions, and by being friends with everybody, could grow their economies quicker. While this remains the practical approach to foreign policy for developing nations, it cannot be the approach of developed nations. Because of more integrated relationships with the rest of the world, developed countries are much more prone to feel the consequences of other nations' actions. Additionally, a more philosophical opinion is that developed nations are wealthy and influential enough that they bear moral responsibility to uphold universal principles of fairness, equality, and freedom.

As the MH17 tragedy demonstrates, Malaysia has entered the phase where it can no longer ignore the actions of other nations without cost. Though MH17 is not the first event to testify to the fact, it is the most shocking, and should serve as the moment we pivot to be more involved.

While Russia remains committed to denying any involvement in the shooting down of the plane, its following actions have not been sufficiently cooperative. Efforts to secure the crash site have been plagued by uncooperative and armed pro-Russian separatists. Though Russia may not hold any direct authority over these groups, they do hold influence over them. Why hasn't Vladimir Putin denounced the disruptions by these separatists and used his influence to urge order and respect for the international teams that have arrived at the crash site? Malaysia needs to begin to display forcefulness, urgency and dissatisfaction over the way the crisis is being handled by those who have power to resolve the situation.

Beyond this, Malaysia needs to take a more engaged and controversial stand concerning the Ukrainian crisis. While the world laments the ineffectiveness of the United Nations to address the wars in Eastern Ukraine, Gaza and other territories of dispute, the decision by countries like Malaysia to remain benign to such wars only reinforces the UN's impotency. (Malaysia's response to Gaza is it's one foreign policy exception, driven by religious and political considerations.)

As a nation, we are no longer small, poor and inconsequential that we can ignore the conflicts that plague humanity. With growing economic and social connected-ness to the rest of the world, we must be more engaged. As MH17 shows, we are no longer bystanders. We have not only an interest in what occurs in other nations, but also a moral compass that we must not ignore. If we choose not to rise to be a global voice, not only will we see ourselves trampled and victimized by irresponsible powers, we will tragicly be silent and ignorant when the truth needs to be heard.

"The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people." Martin Luther King Jr.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The DAP and its ultra-Chinese base. Part II

Talk on the internet is that the DAP and it's candidate, Dyana Sofya lost because of the following reasons. Since a DAP win would not change the powers at the federal level, voting for the BN candidate, Mah Siew Keong, who had been promised a cabinet position if he won, would benefit the constituency for the remaining three years that BN holds power. Additionally, because of low voter turnout, mainly among "outstation" voters, DAP lost out on the anti-establishment votes it typically counts on.

There are two other reasons why the DAP lost:
1. Semi-rural areas, much like rural areas, are still race-driven. In these areas, DAP support is conditional on the party being a Chinese party. When faced with a Chinese candidate from BN and a Malay candidate from the DAP, the Chinese candidate is still more appealing to some, solely because of race. This fact is both informative and troubling to the DAP. To regain this seat in the future,and retain other seats with similar demographics, they will have to play the race-game. The party has a host of potential candidates for future elections that can inspire the ultra-Chinese base and they cannot discount the importance of such support in the battle for Putrajaya. Unfortunately, the DAP has to realize that its efforts to become a truly multicultural party will be very difficult given the result here. Non-urban Malaysia is far from racially blind. Such communal attitudes may not shrink fast enough to give multicultural coalition of Pakatan Rakyat a chance to win the next general election. That being said the loss isn't fully a sign of racial backwardness in semi-rural Malaysia.

2. Mah Siew Keong is a legitimate candidate. He is Teluk Intan-born and has invested much time and effort into the constituency over the last two decades. He has been a state assemblyman and member of parliament for Teluk Intan and has much political experience. Unlike many BN leaders, the Gerakan President has a moderate personality and isn't a lame duck. Dyana is not from Teluk Intan, she has been in politics for just a few years, and does not carry the same depth and weight as her counterpart. She is an unfamiliar face. She lost in part because she wasn't as strong a candidate. This wasn't an election between two equals with the sole distinguishing factor being race. The DAP didn't lose just because she was Malay; they lost because she was inexperienced and didn't know the constituency as well as her opponent. This should be good news to the DAP. If her inexperience is why they lost, then maybe race isn't as much of a factor in semi-rural Malaysia. Maybe the party does have a decent shot at re-branding itself as multicultural without losing support from Chinese voters. What they need to do is tap into a larger, more experienced Malay base. At 27, Dyana may make a good candidate for a state seat. At the parliamentary level, big guns like Mah Siew Keong will put up a good fight. The DAP will need bigger Malay personalities to truly give their opponents a run for their money.

Tony Pua still believes that though the DAP lost, they have won the war. I agree somewhat with his thoughts. It was important to use this seat to experiment. Tactically, it was very smart of the party to make this move. It shows they have a clear plan for the future of the party. The DAP has learnt a lot from this about what it needs to do to remain relevent to its existing base yet grow beyond it also. What is clear is that the party has a lot to do in the next three years to re-position itself as multicultural and convince its Chinese base that such change is a good thing. "Ubah" is a lot harder to sell when it is the mindset of voters you are trying to change.

Saturday, May 31, 2014


Berries and Ice-cream

Chicken Cacciatore

Gnocci with Spicy Italian Sausage

Butter Chicken Curry with basmati rice

Pork Carnitas Taco

Rosemary Chicken with Fettuccine Pesto 

Mexican Salad

Friday, May 23, 2014

The DAP and its ultra Chinese base. Part I

I was a bit concerned and unconvinced by the DAP's decision to field Dyana Sofya, the 26 year-old  political secretary to Lim Kit Siang as the candidate for the Teluk Intan parliamentary by-election. I'm not troubled by her race, gender or intellect but her lack of experience compared to the other prospective candidates who have been fighting against the Barisan Nasional coalition for years, if not decades. Her opponent from Gerakan is far more capable and experienced and will probably make a greater impact in parliament than she would given his credentials.

However, political analyst for The Star, Jocelyn Tan, (surprisingly) raised a perspective that warmed me a little to the decision to field her as a candidate. Everyone is well aware that the DAP, though philosophically a multicultural party, receives very strong support from the ultra-Chinese base. BN has tried relentlessly to tie the DAP to this base of support to position the party racist and chauvinist. While many of the more prolific DAP personalities, such as the Lim family, Karpal Singh's sons, Tony Pua, Liew Ching Tong, Teo Nie Ching and Ong Kian Meng are not racial bigots, a few of the elected representatives from the party are. (Ong Kian Meng writes about the DAP's effort to reach out to Malays here.) In an accelerated attempt to shed this image, the DAP has decided to test the waters with a candidate that may ruffle the ultra-Chinese base. A local experienced Chinese candidate would have rode to victory very easily in this predominantly Chinese constituency, but if the DAP chooses to win based on the Chinese votes, the party may become captive to the ultra-Chinese base and its demands, and depart from it's philosophical foundation of creating an equal and multicultural Malaysia.

Dyana is the DAPs attempt at becoming more like it's partner, Parti Keadlian Rakyat which is tremendously multicultural in Selangor. The DAP is sending a clear message: they want the support of the Malays and will work vigorously to shed the image of bigotry they have because of association with the ultra-Chinese. They are willing to lose some support from the Chinese ultras in exchange for support from moderate Malays, even if that means winning by smaller margins, and possibly losing in some seats in the future.

Dyana should still come out victorious in Teluk Intan, though by a much smaller margin than her predecessor. Many Chinese will still vote for anyone other than the BN, though its candidate, Mah Siew Keong, who is charming, moderate, competent and president of Gerakan will sway some votes because of his stature. But even if Dyana loses, the DAP has already come out ahead in the long run. The concerted effort to become a more moderate and multicultural party reminds us that the DAP party's leaders are intent on steering the party in a direction that will soon prove uncomfortable for some of it's right wing Chinese supporters. Malaysians who view the country less racially should rejoice. The battle for this country is being won by moderate Malaysians.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Lessons from Bangkok

The turbulent decade of political stalemate in Thailand sounds an early warning for Malaysian politics. For almost ten years, Thailand has faced coups, protests, fights and messy elections because its two major political factions have failed to conduct themselves civilly. This deadlock should alarm Malaysians because politics in Malaysia bears incredible resemblance to the game being played out in Thailand, though at this stage, much less extreme. Nevertheless, if we do not pay close attention, we may march down the same path, stalling our economy and destroying civility and harmony.

The stalemate in Thailand is because the two main rival parties hold very different demographic capture. The "red shirts," led by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra have a large rural base. Though charged with corruption and exiled to Dubai, Thaksin still commands a strong following in the agricultural regions of Thailand, a following strong enough that it elected his sister, Yingluck as Prime Minister despite her being a stand-in for her brother who still calls all the shots. The "yellow shirts" on the other hand represent urban voters who, fed up with the corruption of the Thaksin regime, have tried everything from military coups, to elections, to government invasions in order to vanquish the Shinawatra family from power. They have been largely unsuccessful, and were only in power briefly after a military coup and constitution court threw their opponents out. They have never been put in power by voters.

The concern for Malaysia is that if we continue on the trajectory that we are on, we too will end up with two rival coalitions of parties that each represent very demographic groups. As it is, the Barisan Nasional party finds its support among rural Malays in Peninsular Malaysia and among the various indigenous tribes in Sabah and Sarawak. Pakatan Rakyat has strongholds in most of the major cities across East and West Malaysia, as well as Chinese majority seats. If the country's political divisions continue to shift from race based to socio-economic based, then we too may face the same outcomes that Thailand faces today.

The challenge for each party is to widen its base. Barisan Nasional must not give up on regaining urban voters. It seems like an insurmountable challenge (and it probably is) but all the Barisan Nasional component parties must have a similar goal, they must find urban talent to help restore some legitimacy among middle to upper class voters in cities. It seems like a very impossible task especially since MCA and MIC have long become driftwood, floating down the river of intellectual absence, but for the sake of a healthy democracy, they must try.

Likewise Pakatan Rakyat must put greater effort into forming a stronger and wider rural base. While Pakatan Rakyat has the blessing of having PAS as a coalition partner, its rural support is constrained largely to the east coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu. It does not have reliable rural support elsewhere. In contrast, its urban gains in Selangor during the last election were astounding. PKR remains an urban-Selangor centered party. Such is this extent that its many talented leaders are beginning to spend more time bickering with each other about power in the state than trying to strengthen the party's national reach. If PKR does not focus on strengthening it's support in Perak, Pakatan Rakyat will never regain the state. While it will probably be a great sacrifice for the chosen one, what PKR needs to do is re-assign one of the many egos in Selangor (Azmin Ali or Rafizi Ramli) to strengthen the party's presence in other closely contested states, such as Perak, Negeri Sembilan, Kedah, or maybe even Malacca. Lee Chin Tong did that for DAP in Johor and look how far that got them. If PKR chooses not to look past Selangor, then Pakatan Rakyat will never take Putrajaya.

Given the two-coalition system that has formed in Malaysian politics, we must have representative coalitions of parties if we want to sustain the healthy democracy that is beginning to form. When one coalition chooses to entrench itself among a narrow demographic, it gives the opposing coalition incentive to do the same. We can ill-afford coalitions that cannot span the wide interests of voting groups across the country. Thailand has shown us the cost of narrow interests. We must heed their sad example and strive not to replicate. All political parties must take note.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Political Diversity

Let me start off by saying that I disagree with the magnitude of the pay hikes for Selangor state assemblymen that will begin in 2014. I don't think the raise is tremendously exorbitant but it is a tad too high; the increase should be tempered some. The proposed increase for Penang state assemblymen is more reasonable, though I do not think there should be a distinction between salaries and allowances. Assemblymen should get a single paycheck that they are free to spend as they please; no need for special allowances for chauffeurs, entertainment, etc. Do state assemblymen really need chauffeurs?

That being said, I am glad that dissent even within the governing party is open and honest. Anwar Ibrahim and Azmin Ali are secure enough in the strength of their and their party's position that they feel no need to "counsel" the Chief Minister, Khalid Ibrahim, in private, about their disagreement on this matter of wage raises. Khalid Ibrahim has also never shied away from open criticism. He has faced such public attacks before form both men, and many others within his own party, yet at the end of the day, no blood has ever been spilled. He holds fast to his beliefs and actions; rarely does he back track on decisions. The man puts thought into every decision he makes, hence he does not doubt most of his actions.

That these three men form the core of power within PKR says a lot about the tone this party is looking to adopt. Being relatively young, and born out of strife, rather than ideology, it has taken a long time for the party to form a clear vision of what it stands for. But, I believe that we are beginning to see an image of transparency take form. The party is not concerned that it will fall apart, or lose the trust of the people if it shows disunity in public. Instead, it is beginning to allow its members to speak freely. Diversity of opinion does not always lead to a fracture in an institution. I have always contended that parties in Malaysia are not tolerant enough of diversity of opinion. UMNO is well-known as a party where one has to toe the line. Even more liberal and outspoken folk such as Shahrir Samad and Saifuddin Abdullah speak cautiously in public, despite the known disparities between their beliefs and those of many other figures in their party. DAP had to part ways with Tunku Abdul Aziz because of a difference in opinion about Bersih rallies, losing a tremendous asset it its pursuit of a more complete Malaysian image. Yet, PKR is shaping up to be far more tolerant of differences than the rest of these parties.

It is still  uncommon for Barisan Nasional politicians to criticize their compatriots in office publicly. In fact the coalition has always insisted that its "closed door" approach is more mature and better for society. The claim is that many issues are "sensitive" and discussions behind closed doors keep the country harmonious and avoids a rehash of the May 13 race riots. However, the fact of the matter is that Malaysia has come a long way since 1969. It has created a safe civil space where disagreements do not lead towards physical acts of anger. PKR is beginning to leverage on that maturity, and in light of it, Malaysians are now involved in more mature discussions on policy. Politicians from any party need to feel more free to air their views on policy, regardless of whether they are toe-ing the party line or not. In 2013, it is largely unlikely that disagreement will lead to riots and acts of rage; if anything, it shows principle and individuality, and gives voters the opportunity to know the true identity and beliefs of their leaders..

This is a lesson the MCA and Gerakan need to learn fast. The reason for their quick fade from the political scene is their insistence on private discussions of grievances. Parties that do not adapt openness appear dishonest and cowardly. I'm glad that modern day Malaysia is far more tolerant of differences of opinion than politicians of days past have given us credit for. PKR seems well aware of the new landscape and is exploiting the space for honesty to their advantage quite nicely. There is plenty of room for public acknowledgement of the diversity of opinion within political parties. PAS and UMNO should embrace the fact that they both have liberal and conservative wings. Parties that choose to hide, rather than encourage diversity of opinion are just being dishonest with the "rakyat" about the actual nature of sentiment within their ranks. Not a wise idea considering that the public is far more discerning today than it was 10 years ago.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

School Vouchers

I'm hardly an expert on education but having spent the last 19 years of my life in institutions of learning (and at least a few more in the foreseeable future), I have grown to take a keen interest in how institutions should be organized to best educate and create productive and learned societies. My ideas and opinions have, by and large, no formal foundation. I have not studied pedagogical techniques, or taken classes in any education related fields. My positions are largely rooted in a combination of experience, news, opinions, documentaries  and other shallow resources. Nonetheless, I have at least moderate confidence in my current perspectives, though they continue to evolve over time.

I am warming up to the idea that school vouchers, coupled with "school deregulation" may be a good way to structure education systems. The School voucher system is a way of financing education by giving each child a voucher that they can take to pay for any school of their choice.There are many variations of the system, who's leading proponent, Milton Friedman, suggested, would cause schools, both public and private to compete and hence improve. I have long been cautious about the idea, largely because of the sorting effects such a system could have on school demographics. Particularly in heterogeneous societies, it is not unfathomable that schools will sort by wealth, race and culture. In so far as positive peer effects are important in determining student outcomes, such sorting could be detrimental to weaker students, now sorted into weaker schools. The effect of sorting on civil unity is also particularly concerning, especially for countries like Malaysia where race and cultural identities still clash and create tension.

Yet, I (and I assume, many of my readers) are well versed with the inefficiencies that plague central public education systems. The most obvious problem is that teachers in public schools often face skewed incentives. Wages are often a function of how much public funding is allocated to education, not necessarily a function of productivity.This means teachers may be overpaid or underpaid, depending on the country's tax revenues. To an extent, this also means teacher wages follow the overall business cycle, which can be a very bad thing. Teaching unions help voice concerns about wages for the teachers. yet (I can personally vouch for the fact that) even teaching unions have major flaws. They can be hugely political, looking out for private interests. Also, like all other organizations of people, they have the potential to be greedy and over-demanding.

There is an additional problem with public school systems. Because the system isn't competitive, it is often easy for teachers to shirk responsibilities. While general guidelines often exist for the termination of teacher contracts, it is the case (both in Malaysia and in the United States) that these guidelines are either loose, or rarely enforced. Maybe this is because teaching unions have gotten good at bargaining for cushy contracts, maybe the lack of competition between schools provides too weak an incentive for schools to monitor teachers, or maybe. The movie "Waiting for 'Superman'" claims that 1 in 57 doctors and 1 in 97 lawyers in America lose their licenses each year. For teachers, the number is 1 in 2500. I have countless personal stories of teachers in secondary school who shirked tremendously, even though I went to a school where the principal monitored teacher performance incessantly and was incredibly strict with teachers who shirked.

A school voucher system would, I believe, create stronger incentives for tighter teacher assessment processes. If schools compete against each other for money, they will have greater incentive to provide quality education. Since households can vote with their feet, sending their children to different schools depending on school quality, schools will be more willing to fire bad teachers to avoid losing students and the vouchers attached to these students. The best schools and teachers will be rewarded with higher funds. Bad schools and bad teachers will be paid poorly.Teachers who work hard will enjoy better salaries.

The advantages just outlined don't negate the concerns I have about demographic sorting, yet school vouchers maintain compelling draws. The libertarians at the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs  hope that they can influence Malaysian education policy in this direction. I am beginning to come around to the efficiency gains that such a structural change could have on productivity within the education sector, though some still has to be done to placate my concerns about it too.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Malaysia and English Education (Part 3)

The idea of importing teachers from America and the UK to teach in rural schools, is nonsense. It is an expensive and unnecessary gimmick because there are plenty of Malaysians who can do the same work for cheaper. We seem ever willing to pay a foreigner more, but we will not give fellow Malaysians the same treatment. We should replace these foreign teachers by expanding the Teach for Malaysia program, unless of course the foreign teachers are footing their own bill (why turn away charity?)

Fundamentally, what we need to be doing is accelerating the quality of education at teaching colleges and universities. Our teachers are only as good as the training they receive, and even 10 years ago, I could testify to the evidence that teaching colleges were doing an inadequate job. Salaries in public schools are decent (though they still fail to compare with private sector business jobs) but with bad teaching colleges and universities, all we are doing with decent salaries is overpaying bad teachers. As Dr. Mahathir has pointed out, our varsities lack quality teachers. We need to be ready to import good professors in all fields, from across the globe. At the same time, cut the many bad lecturers that persist in our system. We must not be afraid to fire the incompetent. Singapore, across the narrow strait, has one of the best education systems in the world. Our best candidates should be training there in the interim, until our teaching colleges are up to mark. It shouldn't take a rocket scientist to point out that we should be partnering Singapore and learning from them. They train great teachers, what can we do to be more like them? We need to send our best and brightest to study education at top schools around the world then bring them back and treat them with respect so they can make a difference in our schools.

Like all other areas of civil service, our teachers are difficult to dismiss. I can name a large number of teachers who never taught me a day in my life, though they were paid to do so. Mr Kuldip taught me moral studies in Year Four. Apart from the day he was evaluated by a senior teacher, he sat and read his reader's digest. This he did until his retirement. The school threw him a big farewell on the last day of school. I was happy to see him go, and I guess so was the rest of the school. My history teacher in Form Four, the wife of the city's mayor at the time, came to class once, for forty minutes. Fortunately, her husband was hated by the city, and they were transferred to Putrajaya not long after. Mr. Zulkifli taught me history in Form Five. He came in to tell jokes and taught the class maybe two of the nine chapters we were required to cover. I believe he still presents his same routine, seven years on. My art teacher in Form One preferred to sit in the teachers' break room to chat with the afternoon supervisor when we had class. This afternoon supervisor taught us moral studies and was equally irregular to class. There is no system of accountability to shape and ship out those who are lazy, unmotivated or ill-equipped for the profession. The fact of the matter is, nothing gets a worker working than the possibility of dismissal; no one should be guaranteed a job, especially not teachers.

We are many reforms away from getting our schools to work. English language education is one of many battles, but it isn't an insurmountable task. The real question is, do we, those who are able, care enough to get the job done?

Malaysia and English Education (Part 2)

It would be unfair not to recognize the reality that urban Malaysians emphasize: English is the global language. Research, in almost all fields, is conducted in English, largely because most research comes from universities in America. It makes good sense to teach Science and Mathematics in English, and when we don't, we're holding some students back. Parents of such students, wanting the best opportunities for their children, flock to private schools, if they can afford it, preferably to study an international syllabus; gone were the days when students had friends who were Malay, Chinese, Indian, rich, poor, privileged and under privileged. Now, the rich mingle with their kind in private schools, leaving the poor to languish in deteriorating public schools. The loss of opportunity for students to experience diversity, both cultural and socioeconomic, is catastrophic in my opinion, but we may only truly feel the difference in a decade or so.

There is a pressing need for the public education system to innovate. While there has been talk of reintroducing English medium schools, to run parallel with Tamil, Chinese and national schools, I personally am not of the opinion that adding a new stream of schools will work. If anything, we need fewer streams of education, not more. I know many Chinese bigots, who go to Chinese schools, and never understand the mind, background and struggles of the poor Malay. I admit, not all people who go to Chinese schools are bigots, (equivalently, not all who go to national schools aren't bigots) but to ignore the lack of opportunity to interact with other races is foolish. English medium schools will be no different.

What we need is more focused classrooms. We should be pre-testing 6 year olds in their proficiency of the English language, so that when they enter Year One, they are grouped according to ability and taught accordingly. Those fluent in English should be taught English as a first language. Those who aren't should be taught the basics. In secondary school, there should at the very least be an option of English and Higher English (as Singapore has Chinese and Higher Chinese as subjects for 'O' level exams). We should train some teachers so that they are able to teach English as a first language. Native English speakers are unfairly held back all through primary and secondary education. It is no surprise that they then end up pointing out mistakes that their English teachers make. They are just looking for a challenge. If we make no effort to keep the better students engaged, the wealthy ones will continue to flock to private schools depriving society of the healthy, diverse interactions it needs to sustain a peaceful and understanding country.

Malaysia and English Education (Part One)

Given the copious reminders we give ourselves about the diversity in our country's ethnic and cultural landscape, it is unsurprising (rather, it is unfortunate) that we are only now realizing that one size fits all isn't the way we should be teaching the English Language. As letters to newspapers surface pointing out the long existing fact that many students speak better English that their teachers, we should hardly be shocked. A decent majority of Malaysians speak English as a first language; teachers trained only to teach English as a second language can hardly expect to be prepared for the classroom. It has always been the case that the English proficiency of children entering primary school has been extremely varied. This legacy of the British Empire through government and mission English medium schools has only been exacerbated by globalization and the country's widening gap in income.

I entered Year One of primary school speaking fluent English and nothing else. I knew no Chinese dialect and only a few Malay nouns and verbs. I vividly remember struggling to string together the all important sentence, "Izinkan saya pergi ke tandas?" (May I go to the bathroom?) Some other classmates spoke fluent English, others spoke a smattering of the language, but many were as good at English as I was at Chinese or Malay.

That disparity hardly changed throughout my 11 years in the Malaysian public education system. I remember Malay friends from Form 3, who spoke little English lamenting the new government rule that Science and Mathematics be taught in English. We would miss out on the policy and they wished they could be part of it because now, at the tender age of 15, they already felt that they were left behind and would never catch up.

While the Science and Mathematics in English policy would be reversed soon enough to the delight of rural Malays and the chagrin of affluent and urban Malaysians, it's impact has been ambiguous, dividing many. Rural schools, in the "kampungs," which were predominantly Malay, found implementing the policy overwhelming. While on vacation in Cherating, a Canadian volunteer told me of how the local school was at a loss over the policy. Only the sole English teacher spoke English, and even so, barely. Now, they were expected to teach 30-40% of class time in English. There was no way it was going to happen. Yet, urban families, who spoke English at home, embraced the policy with excitement. These students, who already spoke the language well, now had a leg up on the competition. They argued that the policy made great sense, because international universities taught these subjects in English. We were simply readying our students for their future endeavors. Eventually, the heartland won the political struggle, giving further impetus to the flight of the middle class to private schools. "Malay is a dead language" is a common comment in cities these days, in response to the reversal of the policy. Even with more than fifty years of independence, so many have failed to understand the cultural complexities that underline societal living in Malaysia.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Najib Razak's silence

Anyone who has read my election related posts knows that I was generally pleased with the results. I wanted Najib to continue leading this country but for the opposition to make gains, and this was not unexpectedly the case. However, I think many will agree with me when I say that since the election, the Najib administration's performance has been dismal, unexciting, oddly silent and incredibly disorganized. One thing I didn't anticipate, was for a weakened mandate to cower Najib into the fetal position.

While his leadership during the first 4 years in power was commendable, though hardly exceptional, the weak electoral mandate has rendered Najib vulnerable to attacks from within his party. He cannot make bold policy changes because a single misstep could see him lose further support among the "rakyat" and lend his critics an opportunity to unseat him in favor of someone else (Tun Razaleigh Hamzah, perhaps?) His continued silence on the issues of the day (Utusan's divisive reactions to the elections, rising gun-related crime, continued growth of conservative Islamic influence) only reinforce his enigmatic personality. While I was hoping his win would embolden him to reveal his true direction for the nation, in actuality, because the win was unconvincing, he has done the exact opposite. There have been no new policy initiatives since the May 5th election. His lack of presence is beginning to make me wonder if the enigma is just a facade for hollowness. Maybe I cannot find direction because there is none, maybe this boat really is without a captain?

Unfortunately, I will have to wait until after the UMNO General Assembly in December to ascertain this claim. Najib should not find it too difficult to win reelection as president of the party, after which, only an emboldened approach to leadership will give him and his party any shot of holding on to power in the 14th general elections, due in 2018. While urban voters demand greater freedom of speech and transparency, ultimately how he handles the country's finances/economy and public safety will determine his fate as Prime Minister.

Friday, July 05, 2013


Vegetable Omelette with Refried Beans, and Avocado Salad

Beef Kofta Curry with Green Bean and Pea Basmati

Garlic Rosemary Chicken with Pesto Fettuccine

Minestrone Soup with Poached Chicken and Bread

Strawberries, Blueberries and Mango

Hainanese Chicken Rice

Apple Turnover, Grapes and Yogurt

Avocado Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Tomato Soup and Side Salad

Fettuccine Alfredo with Cayenne Chicken and Green Beans

Carne Asada Burrito with Spanish Rice, Refried Beans, Cheese, Salsa and Guacamole

Mango Sticky Rice

Steamed Catfish with Shitake Mushrooms and Tomatoes