Monday, June 27, 2011

The miracle of Malaysia: A makeover in just two decades. Like in China

The Western world almost completely controls our perceptions of events, leaders and of history itself. A fresh reminder of this travesty is provided by the latest bestseller that stares at you from the display shelves of bookstores across Malaysia : A Doctor in the House: The Memoirs of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

The West has spread the impression that Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew is Asia's outstanding economic miracle man while Malaysia's Mahathir as a cantankerous ogre, hater of white people and dictator to boot. Both are dressed up portraits. Actually Mahathir is the real miracle man of Southeast Asia.

The Singaporean, scion of a rich and anglophile family, (he was named Harry Lee Kuan Yew, his brothers Dennis and Freddy), developed into a Cambridge-educated intellectual, at home in think-tank circles in the UK and US, and savvy enough to get a BBC man to give him private lessons on how to conduct himself before a camera. The Malay, son of a poor school teacher, never went beyond Singapore to complete his medical education and remained proud of his traditional Malay values. When he confronted double-speak and double standards, he made no attempt to hide his resentment. If he felt he was on the side of righteousness, he didn't care who was offended. It was easy for the West, self-serving as ever, to adopt Kuan Yew as one of its own, and reject Mahathir as an oriental potentate.

Kuan Yew, Prime Minister for 31 years (mentor thereafter) and Mahathir, Prime Minister for 22 years (retired thereafter) naturally had to deal with each other. In his civilised but no-nonsense style Mahathir describes it as “a civil relationship, not a friendship”. There was a brief interlude when Singapore became part of Malaysia. As Mahathir puts it, “Malaysia was a real country, not a city-state, and to become Prime Minister of Malaysia would satisfy [Lee's] ambitions, especially for power and a more than municipal role.” He adds that in the campaign to win support in Malaysia, Lee “revealed himself as a racist”. He also refers to Lee's party PAP using its “characteristic bullying tactics” during campaign rallies. “People who tried to heckle the PAP speakers had powerful spotlights turned on them. The effect was dramatic”. That was the least bullying of PAP's bullying tactics.

These historically revealing details, however, are no more than sidelights. The core of the Mahathir story is the scale of one man's achievements for his country in the span of two decades. Old timers can still remember Kuala Lumpur as an overgrown village with just one five-star hotel and one main thoroughfare through which all traffic and all commerce passed. Yet there wasn't much traffic jam because there wasn't much traffic.

Mahathir turned that village into a glittering global metropolis. In central KL the traffic jam is terrible these days, but that is inspite of Mahathir landmarks like a monorail, a light rail transit, commuter trains, multilayered flyover networks and expressway systems in addition to the famous airport express train. The airport itself is still a pleasant shock to those who can remember the sleepy old Subang airport. Today's KL vies with Singapore and Shanghai.

Mahathir also converted Malaysia from a rubber-and-rice agricultural economy to an industrial economy. His own special pride is that his modernisation drive transformed the social attitudes of the Malay people from servitude to self-assurance. He still criticises his people for not working hard enough and for lacking commercial acumen. A devout Muslim, he also attacks the idea of taking more than one wife. He abhors fanaticism and condemns “the growing problem of deviant teachings among Muslims in Malaysia”.

What makes Mahathir special is that while pursuing economic progress he never lost sight of the larger picture of human values. That cannot be said of Lee Kuan Yew and certainly not of Indonesia's Suharto or Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra. In sheer vision terms, Mahathir Mohamad has only Deng Hsiaoping in his league.

(T.J.S. George is the author of Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore published by Andre Deutsch, London, in 1973).

Monday, June 20, 2011

Of course we cannot match the best, though we are as good as any. Why?

Was anyone surprised when the acharya of science, C.N.R.Rao, said that none of India's premier institutions could match the best in the world? Earlier, the less authentic voice of Jairam Ramesh had said that India's acclaimed IIMs and IITs were not world class.

They were stating the obvious. Rao did not spare even Bangalore's Indian Institute of Science which he had served with distinction in the past. “Name just ten Indians”, he said “whom the world recognises as good scientists today. I cannot”.

No one suggests of course that Indians do not have it in them. Indeed, many Indian scientists have won top honours in their fields, including the Nobel. But they were all associated with universities and research institutions abroad. The moral of the story is clear: Talent exists but it does not flower in the atmosphere and culture provided by India's academic institutions.

This is where C.N.R.Rao's words should sound an alarm in the circles that matter. Most of the world's scientific research today – about 18 percent -- is done in the US, he said. China is pretty close with 13 percent of the world's research. Said Rao: “The Chinese will in the next 20 years become the best in all fields but we will linger around the fifth place”.

China's growth graph should not surprise us. More importantly, we should not look at it in a jingoistically self-serving they-are-a-dictatorship-we-are-a-democracy mentality. We need not even go to the other extreme and adopt a leftist view as Martin Jacques did in his When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World. That would be merely ideological just as seeing India as a superpower would be merely patriotic.

But C.N.R. Rao's words about China should make us revisit some hard facts. Last November the Chinese Communist Party's plenum approved plans to invest US $ 600 billion over the next five years in high tech, life sciences, advanced materials, renewable energy, aerospace. To provide the intellectual infrastructure required, China had already identified five universities to be developed as Ivy League institutions of excellence. Describing this as unprecedented, the President of America's Yale University said: “China has built the largest higher-education sector in the world in merely a decade's time”.

We cannot do this because we do not have (a) the will and (b) the leadership that is purpose-driven. Our academic institutions are plagued by the same bureaucratic-political culture that vitiates our governmental and public life. Institutions like the IISc may be faring better in relative terms, but our universities – not excluding the JNU – have failed to free themselves from the stranglehold of party, caste and linguistic politics. Self-preservation may be an Indian virtue, but it hardly helps scientific research.

Given half a chance, Murli Manohar Joshi was on the point of converting IIMs into outposts of cultural nationalism. The “Ten Best” listings of which our weekly magazines are terribly fond have been listing Bombay's St. Xavier's as the best college in the country. Yet this was the institution where a student only had to raise a threatening voice to get a Rohinton Mistry novel taken off the syllabus; the college principal's protests were drowned in the Shiv Sena kid's Tarzan victory calls.

China has reasons to be proud of its dictatorship if it produces not just a military machine that gives the jitters to the US, but also steadily rising GDP, educational and research institutions of world class and supremacy in sports. We have strong reasons to be proud of our democracy, but our democracy has to stop being a means for the political class to fatten itself. It has to make us recognise our priorities properly. In terms of talent and potential we are second to none, be it education or sports. What we lack is a system that promotes talent. When will we get a leadership that understands this? Or a revolution that will produce such a leadership?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Promise of a new future for Bengal and Tamil Nadu, but not Kerala

Opportunity has been called “thou strong seducer”. From A. Raja to B. S. Yeddyurappa, from the Bengal communists to the UPA-2 high commanders, they have all allowed opportunity to seduce them. Which is a pity because opportunity is also a provider of inspiration for great and noble work.

Following the recent assembly elections, three states saw historically significant regime changes. How are the novice chief minister in Bengal and the veterans in Tamil Nadu and Kerala using their newly-won moment in history? It is barely a month since they took charge. Yet, a tentative appraisal is possible based on first impressions.

Mamata Bannerji, because of her inexperience in state governance and the unpredictabilities of her mood and behaviour, had caused the maximum apprehensions. But she seems to have given the best first impressions. She began with herself, trying to look less unkempt and less temperamental. (The importance of appearance in this television age cannot be over-emphasised. Every time Baba Ramdev is seen walking to his jet, there must be multitudes who wish he wore a shirt. Shapurji Saklatvala, a Labour member of the British House of Commons in the 1930s, once told Mahatma Gandhi at a meeting in London: “For heaven's sake, Gandhi, wear a pair of trousers”).

Mamata's approach to governance also showed a touch of freshness. Although her attack of the CPM is relentless, she seemed anxious to show that she had put old enmities behind her. One of her first acts as Chief Minister was to call on arch critic Somnath Chatterji in his house. Imagine Jayalalitha going to the Gopalpuram residence of Karunanidhi.

The new chief minister's most promising initiatives have been with respect to choosing ministers and advisers. This was clear during the election campaign itself when she reached out to non-politicos with party tickets. Beyond the cabinet, she has also organised an advisory council consisting of experts from several fields. This means that the new Government will have the benefit of guidance from non-party, non-political specialists. It also shows that the chief minister wants to listen to experts, and not just carry on as a party animal.

The chief ministers of Tamil Nadu and Kerala have been war-horses for too long to be not party animals. Even so, Jayalalitha has the greatest opportunity among all chief ministers. She wields the most power as she is unhindered by allies or by rivals in the party. She is also experienced and intelligent with an administrative acumen recognised by all. She has in her the faculties to become the architect of a new Tamil Nadu and the builder of a new India.

Two factors have stood in the way of fulfilling this promise – a tendency towards vindictive politics and a tendency to listen to no one. Both can be overcome by recognising her own strengths. The Karunanidhi family has been in a state of self-destruct. She could afford to leave it alone and appear graceful in the process. As for the loner posture,there are some new faces in the cabinet. Nothing will be lost -- and a lot gained – if some able ministers are allowed to speak for themselves instead of the unvarying “Amma-speak”.She has also engaged an outside adviser: Ponraj who played a similar role for A.P.J.Abdul Kalam when he was President. If memories of the earlier “kitchen cabinet” are also given a go-by, we may finally see Jayalalitha coming into her own.

Unfortunately Kerala raises no such hopes. A historically thin majority should have made the Congress alliance cautious. Instead, it gave ministerial posts to a host of tainted politicians with a history of corruption. The Muslim League's president even resorted to the unheard-of tactic of announcing portfolios; the hapless Chief Minister pretended he saw and heard nothing unusual. Kerala is set for a new era of plundering – if the Government lasts with its 2-seat majority. The Congress should be grateful that Achutanandan and the CPM are not Yeddyurappa and the BJP. Such is democracy.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Deceiving the people in legal ways is still deception. It won't work

Deceiving, alas, has become part of democracy. It can be brazen or it can be subliminal , the latter being more cunning and therefore more destructive. India goes brazen when big private interests have to be protected. But at the subliminal level, it is continuously deceptive – and continuously corroding the vitals of the country.

When Union Carbide's Anderson was given a special plane and helped to flee the country in the wake of the Bhopal gas catastrophe, the state was deceiving the Indian people. In contrast, when BP's oil well caught fire in American waters, President Obama himself led the campaign to get full compensation from the oil major. American interests first for America. American interests first for India too!

It is a perennial mystery that India has no qualms about putting other people's interests above its own. When European adventurers dropped arms in Purulia forests, one of the brigands was able to stop off in Bombay and walk out of the crowded airport a free man; Wikileaks has since told us that the arms drop was a clandestine state operation to topple West Bengal's communist government. The biggest deception of all was the state brazening it out in the Quattrochi case from beginning to end.

Subliminal deception takes place mostly through manipulative legislation. In a nutshell, laws are framed to make office-holders virtually immune to prosecution. This trick began with the dawn of independence. It continues with renewed vigour as we can see in the state's latest hardening of attitude in the drafting of the Lokpal bill.

Remember, the state was ready with a draft bill. It was its toothlessness that led to a groundswell of unexpected public support to Anna Hazare's campaign for a meaningful draft. The Government's acceptance of the Hazare position was quick, evidently because it was rattled by the explosion of public opinion, as it is rattled by Baba Ramdev now. But there were doubts whether the Government would agree to a law with real power to punish corrupt officials.

The doubts are now confirmed. The Government representatives in the drafting committee now insist that any Lokpal legislation should not apply to the Prime Minister, the higher judiciary and – this is revealing – bureaucrats of the lower levels and MPs in their “conduct in Parliament”. The first two categories had been widely discussed and many, including former Prime Minister Vajpayee and some members of the present ruling elite, had agreed to their inclusion. The Government has actually gone back on its previous position.

The exclusion of bureaucrats and MPs from the Lokpal's jurisdiction gives the game away. From the day the Constitution was enacted and conduct rules for the services formulated, bureaucrats have been protecting themselves and their political mentors with all kinds of immunities and exemptions. The most pernicious idea is that to prosecute someone against whom there is prima facie evidence, you need the permission of his higher-up, bureaucratic or political. Since abusers of power operate in packs, permission is hardly ever granted. The guilty remain free to add to their guilt.

The case of MPs is even more scandalous. We have the worst types of people getting elected and the shameful episode of MPs taking bribes to raise questions in Parliament is still fresh in memory. None of the offending MPs was punished, so some are presumably still making money through their “conduct in Parliament”.

What the latest Government stand brings to light is that the intentions of the ruling class are not honourable. They want to have laws that will not punish the guilty. They want to deceive the people. They want to do this while publicly proclaiming, as Sonia Gandhi recently did, that “transparency is the very heart of our governance”. Wrong. Deception is the very heart of governance. It has been so under all political parties. It won't work much longer because the people have seen through the game. Even the brouhaha over Baba Ramdev's 5-star jetset satyagraha will not dilute public disgust with corruption.