In 1998, Dr. Asma Abdullah gave me an autographed copy of her book 'Going Glocal: Cultural Dimensions in Malaysian Management'.
I see Asma as my elder sister as she hails from Baling, Kedah.
Through the years, we did some work together but I have veered away from studies in culture and management lately.
ISIS has invited her to give a talk on this subject.
You can read more about this event in Malaysiakini (September 14th) and also in Screenshots.
We keep in touch quite regularly and today she asked me for some opinions on the subject.
I take the liberty to post my response to her (CC-ed to several individuals, too) below...
Hello Asma, and to folks whom I have not met, 'hajime mashite' ('Nice to meet you' in Japanese).
It is an honor to be asked... and I hope my humble opinions can be of some use. Otherwise, please disregard them.
I presume we are talking about Malays as well as 'Bangsa Malaysia'.
I start with the Malays.
I think there is no secret recipe here.
If we want the Malays or anyone for that matter to be competitive, resilient, or self-supporting, we just have to create conditions that would allow, lead them to, or even 'compel' them to do just that.
My take is, with the way sweeteners (privileges and special rights) are being doled out, how in the world would anyone want to work hard.
There are some exceptions of course, such as Bakri and Asma, and of course folks like Din too, whom I have not met yet.
I respect these folks and do not wish to belittle anyone on this.
But we are talking about the motivation of 'masses' here.
Subsidies, quotas, and assistance are essential, but we have got to be very careful in monitoring their delivery, time span, and effectiveness.
As it is, we have this polite term called 'leakages'.
Abuses, that is.
Why do we have them?
Which brings me to ask, are the so-called authorities sincere in this?
Do they really want to see Malays uplifting themselves?
Call me skeptical, but I sincerely doubt their sincerity.
Furthermore, we should not just talk of rewards.
There should also be some form of disincentives for failures when we use the sweeteners.
Next, Bangsa Malaysia.
I realize we are a complex society.
I would like to pose this question.
What is Bangsa Malaysia all about?
I see it as the Malaysian race... the Malaysian people...
We may be black, green, or white, but there must be some thread that holds us together, some thread that makes us identify with one another as Bangsa Malaysia.
Do we have this thread?
If we are serious about Bangsa Malaysia, we have got to come up with policies that are more inclusive, as opposed to exclusive, so that citizens from different backgrounds can feel a sense of belonging and togetherness.
Again, sadly I should say, the politicians are the only ones who can bring out this Bangsa Malaysia. (More of this later...)
Where do we start?
I suggest that they dump the race-based political system and go for issues based political parties.
Yes, I know I am asking for the moon.
*Throws in towel...*
I also agree with Bakri (in his writings) about the role of English.
I see this language as the prime unifier of the Malaysian people, a 'common thread' that all Malaysians can look to as a shared super-ordinate element.
We probably can't do it with food barring the lovely nasi lemak... certainly not with religion... so, the only option is language.
Imagine... Malaysian kids mingling with each other in English (Manglish if you wish...)
This will form the basis of friendships among our kids, which will hopefully continue on to their adult lives.
Back to the point on politicians being the only ones who can bring out this Bangsa Malaysia...
This is a most unfortunate setting.
Why is it like this?
Nation building is such a monumental endeavor and politicians certainly cannot do it alone.
We need all the skills from all the experts in all the areas we have to build our nation.
On this count again, I see the politicians hoarding all the authority for themselves.
Academicians, architects, and lawyers, among others... these are the people who can contribute just as much if not more than politicians, to the creation of Bangsa Malaysia.
But, in reality, are they permitted to do so?
(I feel this is a rather ridiculous notion because they shouldn't be asking for permission from anyone in the first place. But in our Malaysia, they have to.)
Ok, I shall stop here before I get carried too far away.
Good luck and please keep me posted on the talk.
Best wishes to all.