Devolution and the Rise of Sarawak’s Adenan Satem

August 28th, 2016

 

Devolution and the Rise of Sarawak’s Adenan Satem

M. Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

 

 

Do not anticipate any positive change in Malaysia coming from the center, not from the current corrupt and incompetent UMNO leadership. Instead expect it from the periphery, in particular Sarawak’s Chief Minister Adenan Setam.

 

This rise of the periphery is a worldwide phenomenon. Witness the successes of the Scottish Nationalist Party and the Brexit referendum. Devolution there is a backlash against globalization; with Malaysia, a weak and distracted center.

 

Adenan’s rise is facilitated both by his political prowess as well as Najib’s precarious position. Najib is inept in dealing with state leaders other than those from UMNO. With those from UMNO, Najib could bribe or bully his way.

 

A measure of Najib’s lack of sensitivity to matters Sarawak is that not a single university has a Department of Iban Studies. Petronas, which gets the bulk of its oil from Sarawak, does not even have one Board Director or senior manager who is from the state. Now Adenan has imposed a moratorium on work permits for West Malaysians in Petronas. It is significant that he spared non-Malaysians.

 

Unlike his predecessor the crude and greedy Taib Mahmud who exploited his leverage to enrich himself, Adenan uses his to extract greater autonomy for Sarawak. He acts as if he already has that, declaring English to be on par with Malay in schools and the state’s administration, in defiance of federal policies. The surprise is the silence of UMNO chauvinists and Malay language nationalists. That can only happen with specific directives from Najib.

 

Adenan has banned UMNO from Sarawak; there is no legal basis for that. Again, no challenge from Najib. If UMNO were to defy that, Adenan would quit the ruling coalition and Najib would fall. Note Adenan’s ease in castrating UMNO jantans. Not a peep of protest from them. They bear and grin, as instructed.

 

Sarawak (and also Sabah) already enjoys considerable autonomy on immigration. West Malaysians need a passport to enter. Adenan exploited that to maximal effect in the last state election, denying entry to opposition MPs from West Malaysia, a slap to Parliament’s prestige. Again, the surprise was the silence of the Speaker, an UMNO man, to this unprecedented affront to his institution.

 

Adenan could act with impunity as his party is critical to Barisan. Through that he controls Najib. To Najib, Sarawak is his “fixed deposit.” That euphemism cannot hide the political reality. Without Adenan’s party, Najib and UMNO would topple. Right now it is to Adenan’s (and Sarawak’s) advantage to stay with the ruling coalition. Najib will do everything to ensure that; his survival depends on it.

 

Autonomy is meaningless without changes in federal tax laws, a formidable obstacle. The federal government has near-exclusive taxing authority. Only minor items like land taxes are under state control. The oil royalty-sharing formula heavily favors the central government. Even if Sarawak could re-negotiate that, it is no windfall, what with the declining oil price. Despite its massive rain forest with its valuable hardwood, Sarawak still cannot forgo massive federal transfer payments.

 

One way to circumvent the tax hurdle would be to execute a secular zakat maneuver. Zakat is a religious tax based on assets, not income, and is under state jurisdiction, albeit applicable only to Muslims and is voluntary. It could be made mandatory and extended to all, non-Muslims included. Both moves would enthrall the Islamists.

 

Zakat contributions are federal tax credits, not deductions. That provides a neat way to circumvent federal income tax.

 

Sarawakians have minimal fondness for the federal government. They could be persuaded to pay zakat (and its secular equivalent for non-Muslims) instead of income tax as the benefits would accrue to them, as the money stays in Sarawak. Sarawakians would not be paying both, rather diverting income tax to zakat.

 

Adenan has adopted an excellent negotiating strategy with Najib by creating momentum with the easily-agreed upon and costless items like increasing the number of Sarawakians in Petronas and having one on its Board of Directors.

 

With Najib’s current weakness, Sarawak could drive a hard bargain for greater autonomy, including independent taxing power, to the point of being a virtual sovereign state. Once that happens, Sabah would be next in line to demand similar status. Sabah UMNO leaders would not dare defy the demands of their members no matter how much Najib bribes those leaders. From there, others. Johor sultan already stirs noises for Bangsa Johor and threatens secession. Kelantan wants its hudud. Najib supporting that ill-advised initiative could come back to haunt him.

 

Once the unravelling begins, it is unstoppable. The prospect of a chief minister being on par with the prime minister is a giddy one to ambitious state politicians. Remember, the federation is of recent vintage. The old Malaya was set up only in 1948; Malaysia, even more recent.

 

Consider the impact of autonomy on national policies like education and special privileges. Even with the current restrictions, note the ease with which the opposition DAP terminated special privileges for Malay contractors in Penang. Selangor under Pakatan’s Khalid Ibrahim annihilated a whole class of UMNO rent seekers, and saw his predecessor, that dentist character, jailed for corruption.

 

Even if Najib were to balk at Adenan’s demands, what’s to stop Adenan from asking his party members in Parliament to submit a private member’s bill, a la PAS Hadi’s hudud, seeking greater autonomy and taxing authority for Sarawak? If Adenan were to do that, then watch both Najib and the opposition compete to accommodate Adenan in an epic lu tolong gua, gua tolong lu battle. He would be holding Parliament–and Malaysia–to ransom.

 

I support the principle that a government closest to the people governs best. There are pitfalls, however.

 

Sarawak shares a long unguarded border with Indonesia. Most of Borneo is Indonesia; Sarawak being part of Malaysia is an anomaly. It would not take much for the Indonesians to overwhelm Sarawak. If not for the British, they would have during konfrontasi. Besides, Jokowi is everything that Najib is not: honest, effective and charismatic.

 

As for Sabah, Filipino pirates can enter it with impunity, and Philippines is resurrecting her claim. Another complicating mix, traditional kinship ties between Sabah and Southern Philippines.

 

Adenan envies tiny independent Brunei. The lesson there is not the Brunei of today but earlier. In 1962 one A. M. Azahari toppled the sultan. If not for the British Gurkhas, the sultan would have remained a refugee in Singapore. The son of Azahari may yet arise. This time there will be no Gurkhas.

 

As for Johor, it wasn’t too long ago that its sultan treated the state as his private property and gave away a strategic and valuable part of it (Singapore). It would be the supreme irony if his descendant were to repeat the folly.

 

Those aside, I see great potential for Sarawak under Adenan Satem. He may be the transforming leader Malaysia needs while remaining within the ruling coalition. Today that coalition is Barisan. Tomorrow who knows. If Adenan plays his card well, that would be good for him, Sarawak, and most of all, Malaysia.

The Hyenas, Vultures and Maggots of 1MDB

August 22nd, 2016

The Hyenas, Vultures and Maggots of 1MDB

  1. M. Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

 

 

1MDB is not yet a bloated carcass (it is bloated only with debt) and already the hyenas, vultures and maggots are feasting with glee. In the wild, hyenas and vultures wait till their prey is dead, and maggots, rotting. Not these human hyenas, vultures and maggots.

 

Scavengers are vital in the ecosystem; they cleanse the environment of dead and decomposing bodies. In contrast, these human hyenas, vultures and maggots feasting on 1MDB are part of the rubbish. Perverse as it may seem, they have an exalted opinion of themselves. They view what they are doing–defending “Malaysian Official 1” who is related to one of the hyenas Reza Aziz–as honorable.

 

This 1MDB mess is humungous; it will burden Malaysians for generations. That is a grim and undeniable fact.

 

Other facts, also undeniable, include these. One, 1MDB’s debt in excess of RM42 billion, and growing fast, exceeds the current budgetary allocation for education. No other entity, private or public, then or now could come even close. Those loans are ultimately the responsibility of taxpayers as well as those who do not pay tax. Those non-taxpayers, meaning the poor, are impacted because funds meant for them would be diverted to servicing those debts.

 

Two, 1MDB has gone through as many accounting firms as Britney Spears with boyfriends.  Its latest, Deloitte, has resigned, but not before making a most unusual declaration. That is, the US Department of Justice’s June 20, 2016 asset forfeiture lawsuit contained information that, if known at the time of the 2013 and 2014 audits “would have impacted the financial statements and affected the audit reports.”

 

Along the same vein, the Auditor-General’s Report on 1MDB which the government had promised to make public is now under the Official Secrets Act. Those reports have always been public. Why keep this one secret?

 

Three, 1MDB has gone through as many chief executives in as many years, not the sign of a well-managed company. Four, drive by the site of the proposed Tun Razak Exchange, 1MDB’s signature development. It is empty. Last, 1MDB has yet to generate a sen of profit despite being in existence since 2009.

 

Meanwhile Switzerland has forced the sale of the bank involved with 1MDB and imposed an unusual and tough stipulation. Its new owner must not employ any of the existing senior managers of the sold bank. Singapore summarily closed the local branch of that bank. Its head now faces criminal charges. He was denied bail while awaiting trial, reflecting the gravity of the alleged crime. Singapore admitted to being lax in monitoring the bank’s activities with respect to 1MDB. Singapore also froze the assets of Jho Low, Najib’s financial confidant and key 1MDB player, an unprecedented as well as severe action.

 

There are other facts. The Attorney-General and Bank Negara have closed their investigations with no negative findings. Then there are the American DOJ’s asset forfeiture lawsuits and the class-action suit of Husam and Chang.

 

In America anyone can file a lawsuit. Thus you may dismiss the American lawsuits but not the actions of the Swiss and Singaporean authorities. As for the Attorney-General and Bank Negara Governor exonerating 1MDB, I let readers give that its proper weightage and relevance. Nonetheless that would still not explain 1MDB’s huge debts, changes in management and auditing firms, empty TRX lot, and the Auditor-General Report being kept secret.

 

For those who believe that Najib is God’s gift to Malaysians, you can’t argue with them. It would also be blasphemous to dispute Allah’s choice. For the rest of us, we need a more rational explanation, one that does not assault credibility or insult intelligence.

 

Back to the hyenas, they are now uncharacteristically quiet, their former flamboyance gone. Perhaps they are enjoying their morsels while they can, in their penthouses of Manhattan, mansions of Beverly Hills, and luxury yachts cruising the South China Sea. One would expect that having benefited handsomely from 1MDB they would harbor some gratitude to defend their benefactor.

 

The vast majority of Najib’s supporters are simple, unsophisticated Malay villagers still under the grip of feudalism. To them it is a simplistic “my leader, my race, my country, right or wrong!” Their loyalty to leaders is intense and unquestioning, up to a point. Betray that, and you pay the price. Datuk Onn was a hero for stopping Malayan Union, and Tunku Abdul Rahman for bringing merdeka. When they fell out of step with their followers, their drop from hero to villain was precipitous and merciless.

 

Najib is nowhere near the caliber of those two giants. We must remind him and his ardent supporters of that.

 

Those villagers aside, only those vultures and maggots remain Najib’s supporters. The hyenas should be, but for reasons best known to themselves have chosen to remain silent. That leaves the vultures to be his noisiest and ugliest cheerleaders. Unlike the hyenas with their bounties in the millions, those vultures are satisfied with a promotion or two and a federal award (second or third class) thrown in. Satisfied because stripped of their new appointments, they would earn but a mere fraction back at their old law practices or whatever they did before prostituting themselves to Najib.

 

The maggots are there as long as there is a decaying carcass.  A few ringgit tossed their way to fill the tanks of their used motorbikes, and they are happy parading their red shirts or polluting the social media with their inane comments. Once the carrion is gone, so will they.

 

Some support Najib out of inertia, buttressed by the havoc of regime change in Iraq and Libya as well as the performance of the opposition. Others reflect the forbearance of Malaysians. Najib, they rationalize, won the last election albeit without the majority of the popular votes. Nonetheless that victory was reaffirmed by the recent state elections in Sarawak as well as the two by-elections in Peninsula Malaysia.

 

That is a dicey defense. Winning elections is no license to steal or be corrupt. Nixon won a landslide in 1972, yet that did not stop his impeachment and subsequent resignation in disgrace for covering up the Watergate break-in.

 

A few would argue that Najib’s shenanigans are no different from Mahathir’s many opaque UMNO proxy companies plus London Tin, Bank Bumiputra, and Forex debacles. To them 1MDB is merely a different crocodile, albeit much more menacing, but from the same fetid swamp. Malaysia will never progress with that attitude.

 

Then there is the reflected glory argument. Reza Aziz, Malaysian Official 1’s stepson, is one of the producers of the Academy Award-winning The Wolf of Wall Street. Most would miss the irony as the film is banned in Malaysia. Nonetheless Malays in particular should celebrate that achievement.

 

Malaysians would have, and proudly too, had the film not been tainted. Indeed, the Academy publicly demanded that Reza Aziz’s name be officially deleted. It is like winning at the Olympics, and later disqualified for doping. Instead of glory, shame.

 

Another aspect of Najib’s support is crude anti-American rage triggered by the DOJ’s lawsuit. That was seen as interference as well as double standards. America too is blighted with corruption, they sniff. True. As South Korean Tongsun Park and Indonesian James Riady, as well as former Attorney-General Mitchell and President’s Counsel John Dean found out, the corrupt do get caught, convicted, and jailed. That’s the lesson Malaysians should draw from America.

 

As for American interference, if Najib and other corrupt Third World leaders do not want that, then next time accept only Zimbabwean dollars and use a bank in Uzbekistan. Buy properties in Bali or Cancun, not Manhattan or Beverly Hills, and bet at casinos in Macau not Las Vegas. There are no shortages of hyenas, vultures and maggots in those countries to clean up your mess.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1MDB – Malaysia’s Enron and Watergate Combined

August 14th, 2016

1MDB – Malaysia’s Enron and Watergate Combined
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com

The One Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption is business as usual in Malaysia. That is a great tragedy as well as a gross injustice. To Malaysia, 1MDB is “case closed.” That reflects the nation’s system of justice and quality of its institutions, as well as the caliber of those entrusted to run them.

Like ugliness, injustice is obvious to all and transcends boundaries. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) first shone the light at the hideous pox on 1MDB’s face with the filing of the asset forfeiture lawsuit on July 20, 2016. That was only the beginning. Shortly thereafter, Singapore froze the assets of Jho Low, one of the culprits. Together with Switzerland, it also closed the bank involved.

There is now a racketeering suit filed by Husam Musa and Matthias Chang, as private citizens, on August 11, 2016 in New York. That has yet to be certified as a class action suit. With the huge number of potential plaintiffs, it will have no difficulty meeting the numerosity criterion.

1MDB will be Malaysia’s Watergate and Enron combined.

The US Senate Watergate Hearings of the 1970s, triggered by the “third-rate burglary” at the Democratic Party Election Headquarters in Washington, DC, saw many jailed. More than a few prominent lawyers were disbarred, including a former Attorney General as well as the Counsel to the President. It forced President Nixon to resign in disgrace.

The Enron debacle also saw many of its principals imprisoned. The main culprit had a fatal heart attack while being investigated. Enron’s principal advisor, the giant accounting firm Arthur Andersen, collapsed. Quite a collateral damage!

The suit by Husam and Chang differs from the earlier DOJ’s in that the defendants are individuals and firms, not assets. They include the usual culprits Jho Low and Reza Aziz, plus his principal accountant Debra Johnson, Goldman Sachs’ bond salesman Timothy Leissner, and film producer Joey McFarland, together with their respective enterprises Metroplex Capital Advisors, Goldman Sachs, and Red Granite Pictures respectively.

Lawsuits are complex and expensive, both to initiate and defend. As for costs, we are looking at high six figures or even millions. That’s US dollars, not devalued ringgit. I do not know about Chang, but I am certain that Husam does not have the kind of resources to engage the high-powered law firms of Louis F Burke PC of New York and Ajamie, LLP of Houston. I do not know their arrangements.

America has the wonderful concept of contingency fees where plaintiffs’ lawyers would get paid only from the awards. Meaning, they have to prevail in order to get paid. That’s laudable public policy as it would ensure that the poor get access to good legal representation.

It would be in the plaintiff lawyers’ interest to ensure that there is a good or at least winnable case, as well as a pot of gold at the end of the trail, or trial. To put it in the colloquial, their defendants must have deep pockets.

Reza Aziz’s and Jho Low’s major assets are now tied up in the DOJ’s forfeiture lawsuit, while Low’s are also frozen in Singapore. Reza Aziz may have a super rich stepfather or donor somewhere. As for the other defendants, Goldman Sachs has the deepest pocket, tantalizing enough target by itself.

While the other defendants and their enterprises may not have deep pockets on cursory examination, they may have generous liability and other insurances. It would be a hollow victory, not to mention a very expensive one, if in the end you could not collect your awards.

In their lawsuit Husam and Chang seek awards of actual damages, restitution or disgorgement of wrongful profits obtained by the defendants, triple damages as provided for by the racketeering Act and other statutes cited, punitive damages, as well as costs and expenses. Tallying those will take a battalion of accountants. Insurances usually do not cover punitive damages or racketeering acts. The threat of both is motivation enough to make defendants settle early.

Husam and Chang have already won a victory of sorts in securing the services of these two top law firms. Those lawyers would not risk their reputation and resources to see their case thrown out of court at the first hearing. They must have done their research and found the case not without merit.

What’s in it for Husam and Chang? Certainly not the money. For even if they were to prevail and the awards be in the mega millions, their share after their lawyers’ cut would not be substantial. They must be doing it to ensure that justice prevails. They could not get that in Malaysia, so they come to America.

The irony should not escape us. The pair could not find justice in an Islamic country but instead have to fly ten thousand miles away in the land of the kafir to seek it. The paradox must have struck Husam hard, being a former PAS Vice-President. That should impress upon him the essential difference between label and content.

Lawyers however, have as much to do with justice as doctors to health. Lawsuits in particular have even less; they are but business decisions to law firms. Victory is settlement in their favor without having to go through an expensive and uncertain trial.

For others, justice would be served if Jho Low and Reza Aziz were forced to disgorge their illicit gains, and then be punished. For Malaysians, that would not be enough. For them justice would come only with full exposure, as with a trial so all the ugly truth could be revealed. Then with that information they could make a better choice on whom to elect as their next leaders to ensure that such corruption and injustice would not recur.

As President Johnson once noted, the vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man to fight injustice. We must erase this perversity among Malaysians, leaders and followers alike, that corrupt and illicit gains are but rewards and gifts from generous donors or a benevolent Allah. An open trail would be a great effort in that direction.

The highest reach of injustice is to be deemed just when you are not, wrote Plato. Likewise, the most depraved act of corruption is to view it as otherwise. 1MDB is the most egregious corruption, and we have to expose it to Malaysians as such.

To Husam Musa and Matthias Chang, thank you for your initiative in taking that brave first step. Yours is the finest form of patriotism. The corrupt, the perverts and the traitors would view your act as treason. That is the ultimate compliment! You do not want them to praise you. Reserve that for Najib.

Lowering The Bar on Najib’s Already Mediocre Leadership

August 7th, 2016

 

Lowering The Bar On Najib’s Already Mediocre Leadership

M. Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

 

 

I am baffled at the continued praise and support for Prime Minister Najib in the face of the mounting 1MDB mess. To be sure, those come only from Malays, specifically those in UMNO, plus a few scattered voices elsewhere. They are lowering the bar for Najib’s already mediocre leadership.

 

Najib is but a Third World corrupt kleptocrat robbing billions belonging to the people of Malaysia, to quote the US Department of Justice (DOJ). Meanwhile those toadying Malays continue blathering “let justice take its course” or “innocent till proven guilty.” Those may be fine in a courtroom but for leaders we demand and impose a much higher standard, as “without even the hint of impropriety.”

 

Those praises for Najib come in various contortions. Consider the absurd statement from PAS Hadi Awang who ventured that DOJ must produce four witnesses or that the accusation against Najib could come only from Muslims. Which cave did Hadi emerge from?

 

The evidence of Najib’s impropriety abounds, not just in the DOJ filings or complicated charts tracing the cross-border flows of illicit money as reported in The Guardian, Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, rather by the simple and obvious fact that 1MDB has saddled Malaysians with billions worth of debt and little to show for it. The proposed Tun Razak Exchange site is still empty while power plants once locally owned are now in foreigners’ hands.

 

Najib denies that he is the “Malaysian Official 1” referred to in the DOJ documents. I wonder who could that top Malaysian public official related to Reza Aziz be? Najib also denied being linked to the DOJ’s lawsuit. Poor Najib! Despite his expensive British boarding school education, Najib could not comprehend the difference between the legal term “defendant” and the everyday meaning of “linked.”

 

This 1MDB mess is now being investigated in no fewer than six jurisdictions. Singapore has already frozen the assets of Jho Low, Najib’s financial confidant. Switzerland terminated the license of its bank involved in the transactions. It would take great effort on Najib’s part not to know that. Perhaps his staple of reading does not extend beyond UMNO newsletters New Straits Times and Utusan Melayu.

 

The behaviors of Najib’s courtiers and political whores, like his ministers and party chieftains, do not surprise me. They are paid to pleasure the man. The Rahman Dahlans and Khairy Jamaluddins remind me of Saddam Hussein’s cartoonish Information Chief “Bagdad Bob” just before the fall of that city. The American tanks could be heard and seen rolling in the background but he kept insisting otherwise in a televised press conference. Those UMNO boys fancy themselves heroes defending their leader, but the world sees them as cretins.

 

As for Najib’s nonchalance, I am certain that Saddam Hussein felt the same way right to the very moment before he had to flee to that rat hole in the desert; his Bagdad Bob had earlier assured him that everything was fine. Muammar Gaddafi probably felt likewise moments before he was caught and butchered by his fellow Libyans.

 

Najib’s personal fate does not concern me; Malaysia’s does. If Najib were not to get off the stage on his own volition and soon, the price for him as well as Malaysia would be high. Malaysia must be spared such a fate. Leaders in the mold of Najib, like Saddam and Gaddafi, have an unwarranted sense of invincibility, surrounded as they are with their flatterers.

 

It annoys me only a tad to read the toadying comments of the Khairys, Rahmans, and Nazris. What upsets me is that these characters are seen by non-Malays as the best of what our community could produce.

 

What pains me most are comments by the likes of Tunku Aziz, former Chairman of Transparency International and member of the Anti Corruption Advisory Committee. Does he think keeping the Auditor-General’s Report secret increases transparency? Then there is Bernama Chairman Azman Ujang who quoted an obscure Malaysian-born Australian lawyer’s opinion that the DOJ’s filing was flawed! Azman must have undertaken quite a search to find that character!

 

The shocking silence of our ulamas and intellectuals too disturbs me. Surely there must be a competent economist in the Majlis Professor Negara (Professors’ Council) who could enlighten us on the implications of 1MDB’s massive debts and the associated opportunity costs.

 

There were notable exceptions of course but few and far between. Dr. Asri (MAZA), the Perlis mufti, chastised his fellow ulamas for their silence. Mustapha Kamil, group managing editor of the New Straits Times finally reached his limit and quit. Former Law Minister Zaid Ibrahim continues to warn Malaysians of the danger Najib’s leadership imposes upon Malaysians. Law Professor Azmi Sharom is another brave soul. For that he is often charged with sedition. So far they have not been able to nail him. Rest assured that Azmi will not be nominated any time soon to the Professors’ Council.

 

Those mute carma (contraction for cari makan; lit. looking for food) professors and ulamas, as well as the Tunku Azizs and Azman Ujangs must remember that although Najib may have appointed them, their salaries are being paid for by taxpayers. Their duty and loyalty should thus be to the public. They should also remain true to their calling.

 

I could sympathize with their support of Najib if those characters were showered with gravy on the same scale as that Malaysian Official 1’s relative Reza Aziz, or Jho Low and that Goldman Sachs’ bond salesman. Instead those Malays were getting only the crumbs, and for that they were willing to soil their reputation. Meanwhile those who had received the juiciest morsels were too busy enjoying their loot to comment.

 

There is only one certainty; Najib’s tenure will end and Malaysians will be saddled by his legacy. The questions our children and grandchildren would be asking then would be:  Were you part of the solution? If you were not, then you were the problem.

 

 

 

 

 

 

1MDB NotAn Overnight Monster; Likewise Malaysian Official 1

July 31st, 2016

1MDB Not An Overnight Monster; Likewise “Malaysian Official 1”

 

  1. Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

 

 

The colossal corruption scandal that is 1MDB is not an overnight monster; likewise its principal rogue, “Malaysian Official 1” (MO1).

The loss from 1MDB, though in the billions, is at least quantifiable. Not so the besmirching of Malaysia’s good name by its leader MO1 being labelled the world’s most corrupt kleptocrat by the US Department of Justice.

So hideous and unprecedented was MO1’s conduct that I believe he (or maybe she) was born corrupt. Or to use Mahathir’s words in his The Malay Dilemma, it is in his (MO1’s) genes to be corrupt.

I go further. Even if you are inherently (that is, genetically predisposed to be) corrupt, you would not necessarily be so if you were to be brought up along the straight path. So the only conclusion is that MO1 in addition to being born corrupt was also nurtured by a corrupt family.

That is a near-blasphemous statement to make in Malaysia. The memory of the father of MO1 is still held in high regards by most Malaysians. Most but not all. For those not lucky enough to be born of the right heritage to benefit from the father’s new enlightened policy, the image is less pristine.

In trying to defend his (and his spouse’s) current wealth and profligate ways, MO1 once claimed that he was blessed with a bountiful inheritance. Offended by that statement, one of his siblings took the unusual step of publicly contradicting him, claiming that their father died while not quite in poverty was definitely not wealthy. At least that family has one honest member.

This MO1 has a long history, both personal as well as official. As for the personal, let’s just say that he is a Malaysian Bill Clinton, minus the brilliance. There is little need to pursue that prurient path.

As for the official, as Minister of Education back in the 1990s he approved over 500 permits for private colleges during a two-year period. That was more than one application a day! You would need a lot of grease to make the normally sluggish Malaysian bureaucracy go that fast and smooth. He must have received plenty of grease to slide by all those applications.

A measure of the ministry’s “thoroughness” was that many of those colleges closed shop after their students had paid the exorbitant fees, stranding the students and disappointing their parents.

As Defense Minister he gave his buddy millions as “commission” to buy a billion-ringgit used submarine that could not submerge. We may yet know more about that scandal as the French is reopening that corruption case. As for his buddy, he too shared MO1’s personal morality. All that is now cleansed, in the eyes of the Malaysian brand of Islam, with their trip to Mecca.

Now with MO1 as Finance Minister, should Malaysians and the world be surprised then that 1MDB is the consequence?

One person however vile, corrupt, or greedy could not possibly execute a heist on the scale of 1MDB. MO1 must have had many enablers. Not only that, the nation’s institutions must also have been sufficiently weakened and their personnel emasculated not to have noticed the massive looting. The rotting of Malaysian institutions and the breeding of those enablers too did not happen overnight.

The heads of Bank Negara, Anti-Corruption Commission and the police, as well as the Auditor-General and Attorney-General during the looting of 1MDB were individuals appointed by other than MO1. The exception is the current Attorney General, that failed former UMNO operative.

There may be some poetic justice if not perverse irony in that a few of those enablers now face the threat of being charged for treason, for not protecting MO1 vigorously or enough.

I draw a difference between those enablers versus the UMNO ministers, divisional chiefs, and UMNO Youth “red-shirts” who mindlessly defend and sing praises of MO1. These latter characters are whores; they are paid to pleasure MO1. Destroy 1MDB and MO1, and with their lifeline cut off, watch them convert to be MO1’s and UMNO’s severest critic.

Now with the National Security Act of 2016 operative, criticisms of MO1 would be that much more difficult and treacherous. Again, that NSA did not appear overnight. It took decades in preparation, going back to the constitutional amendment of 1994 which made possible for laws passed by Parliament to dispense with royal assent.

That constitutional amendment, as well as the rotting institutions, is water underneath the bridge. No point wallowing in it. Yet many are still obsessed with the blame game and relish indulging their status as Mahathir’s victims. They are more interested in settling old scores or getting even on earlier slights instead of helping solve the current problem. Some let their hatred and contempt for Mahathir get in their way of rational thinking. What’s the point? All Malaysians are now victims of MO1’s greed, except for the equally corrupt few recipients of his “cash is king” mode.

Yes, Mahathir let possible for all those things to happen during his watch. However, he has been off the stage now for well over a decade. Surely Malaysians could rise above and rectify his mistakes. Why blame the man? He is over 90 now. No glory in beating up an old man. Besides he is trying very hard to undo his errors. Help him succeed, and once that is achieved you could then engage in a post-mortem and assign blame.

It takes more than a little bit of humility to admit to one’s error. It takes an even greater courage to rectify it.  Mahathir admitted that appointing that dud Abdullah Badawi was a mistake. Being instrumental in Najib’s ascend was also Mahathir’s mistake. Mahathir was successful in correcting his first. Malaysians should now help him correct his second–get rid of Najib.

Malaysia would be the ultimate beneficiary, not Mahathir. He doesn’t need the trophy. If 1MD and MO1 are not destroyed, both will destroy Malaysia. Then all Malaysians will be the victim.

 

 

 

The Malay Shame and Tragedy That Is 1MDB

July 25th, 2016

 

 

The Malay Shame and Tragedy That Is 1MDB

M. Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

Imagine had Prime Minister Najib Razak responded differently to the US Department of Justice Asset Forfeiture lawsuit and said instead, “I have instructed my Foreign Minister to seek clarification to determine who this “Malaysian Official 1” so we could investigate him. I have also directed the Attorney General to review the evidence in the DOJ complaint.”

As for 1MDB, imagine if its spokesman had responded, “We view with deep concern allegations that assets meant for our company, a public trust, had been corruptly diverted. We seek clarification on who 1MDB Officials 1 and 2 are to make sure that they are no longer in our employ. We will review our policies to ensure that such pilferages as alleged by DOJ if they did occur will not recur. Additionally, we are engaging legal counsel to protect our interests in the American trial.”

Instead, what Malaysians and the world heard last Wednesday were irrelevant and meaningless statements to the effect that neither Najib nor 1MDB are the defendants in the suit. True and obvious, needing no response or clarification. The defendants are the owners of those seized assets which are alleged to have been acquired with funds corruptly siphoned from 1MDB, a GLC of which Najib is the Chairman.

The responses from Najib, his ministers, and 1MDB only brought shame to themselves, to Malays, and to Malaysia.

As for the defendants, their options are either not to contest the suit and thus forfeit those assets, or fight it. Negotiated settlement is unlikely. This is the biggest asset forfeiture in US history; Attorney-General Lynch is out to make a point to corrupt kleptocrats everywhere in these days of complex cross-border money laundering.

Before this, the biggest forfeiture involved the giant telecom company, Amsterdam-based Vimpel.com, and individuals close to the president of Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks ignored the suit while the company pleaded guilty to the criminal charges. Rest assured that those defendant Uzbeks won’t be visiting Disneyland or Las Vegas any time soon!

This 1MDB corruption may be a legal case but politics is never far off the radar in Putrajaya and Washington, DC, as well as in the potentially more volatile international arena.

 

No-Contest Option

Not contesting would save substantial legal fees and other costs, as well as the not insignificant personal hassle factor. Those aside, the biggest advantage would be not further exposing the defendants and others, legally as well as in many other ways, during the pretrial discovery and trial. Spared a trial the identity of “Malaysian Official 1” will never be known, at least not officially, a crucial consideration in Putrajaya.

The loss of those assets, even though in the hundreds of millions (in US dollars, not worthless ringgit), is at least quantifiable. However, even the Sultan of Brunei could not shrug off a loss of that magnitude.

Choose this option and Reza Aziz, one of the defendants who according to court documents is also related to Malaysian Official 1, would be well advised to pack up and find a country that does not have extradition or tax treaty with the US. He also had better get used to a much less luxurious lifestyle.

Were Reza to pursue this course, at least in his old age he could regale his grandchildren with stories that he once owned a glittering condo in Manhattan and shared drinks with Hollywood stars in Las Vegas.

That would also be a very Malay story. At Kampung Baru today there are many elders who look with nostalgic gaze at the skyscrapers in the Golden Triangle and lament, “Ah, itu cerita dulu!” (Those are old stories!)

The US Government would recoup its considerable costs from those assets. Rest assured there would be itemized bills for every paper clip and DOJ lawyers would be charging senior partners’ rates. Even after factoring that there will still be substantial loot left. By statute, that belongs to the people of Malaysia.

If Najib is still Prime Minister, do you think those Americans would be dumb enough to return those millions to the same scoundrels? America could not disburse them to Malaysian NGOs either as most are not sympathetic to UMNO. That would present a delicate diplomatic problem. On the hand it could prove to be the most sophisticated and effective exercise of “soft power,” more powerful than “boots on the ground” in effecting regime change.

At any rate don’t expect those Monet paintings to hang on the walls of kampung huts any time soon.

 

Contesting the Forfeiture

Contesting would be no walk in the park. It would be expensive, protracted, and risk uncovering details that could trigger criminal charges. American lawyers are not cheap and potential defense attorneys would want their substantial fees paid upfront and from “clean” sources. With those assets tied, Reza better have other fat bank accounts. Even if he were to receive help from his “Malaysian Official 1” relative, Reza’s defense attorneys would insist, and need unchallenged documentation, that the money is legitimate and not siphoned public funds.

The earliest a trial could begin would be a year or two hence, in time for the UMNO Leadership Convention or worse, the next Malaysian election. A trial would also risk exposing the identity of “Malaysian Official 1, a consideration for Putrajaya.

Being a civil case the burden of proof for the prosecution is lower, merely the preponderance of evidence, not the much higher “beyond a reasonable doubt” of a criminal trial. The burden also shifts to the defendants to prove that those assets were acquired with untainted funds.

In court documents Reza Aziz claimed that the millions he received from some unknown Arab was a gift. An incredulous assertion that even his accountant did not believe him; hence the attestation from his “donor.” If this be a trial by jury, it would be tricky to convince an American juror, as with Reza’s accountant, that receiving millions from a stranger is a “gift.” Besides, the image of an Arab in America these days is far from pristine.

With a trial the testimonies of those professionals who had advised the defendants would be scrutinized. The Watergate Hearings of the 1970s exposed the unsavory activities of the various advisors. Many prominent lawyers ended being disbarred, including the President’s Counsel as well as a former Attorney-General.

A trial would highlight an ugly truth that could prove explosive in race-sensitive Malaysia. That is, Reza Aziz excepted, those corrupt Malays got only the crumbs while the gravy flowed to that Wharton-trained Chinaman. That won’t sit well with UMNO Youth’s “Red Shirts” or PERKASA boys.

A trial would also showcase the professionalism and meticulousness of American prosecutors and investigators. That would not make the former failed UMNO operative and now Malaysia’s Attorney-General look good. The Malay image is already battered by the amateurs at 1MDB.

From the perspective of international politics, it may be shrewd not to identify “Malaysian Official 1.” This forfeiture however, is not the only game. After all, Obama did not tee off with Najib that Christmas in Hawaii because he (Najib) was a Tiger Woods. It was part of Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” show, with Najib the prop.

There are other actors in this new shadow play. China is asserting itself, most visibly through military exercises in the South China Sea but more effectively elsewhere. Note the abrupt change of face at the recent ASEAN conference that had initially condemned China, and ASEAN’s collective silence on the International Court’s decision on the South China Sea dispute.

China too could play the Obama game, not on the green of Hawaii’s golf course but FELDA’s oil palm oil plantation. China could buy palm oil from Africa, and not offer inflated prices for those rusty 1MDB assets.

Najib now has to balance the interests of his stepson and former Beverly Hills real estate tycoon Reza Aziz versus that of FELDA settlers and their wooden huts. Not an easy choice!

The kampung boy in me longs to see a good fight by our modern-day Hang Tuah. Thus I challenge Reza to be jantan (man) enough to fight this US forfeiture.

Back to reality, the winners in this 1MDB shadow play are many and obvious. Reza is one, though not as big as he was before the forfeiture; so too Malaysian Official 1 as well as IMDB Officials 1 and 2. As for that Wharton MBA character, he could still savor his shark’s fin soup in Taiwan. The US DOJ too is a winner, and a very big one.

As for the losers, 1MDB is the obvious. Its current management should sue the previous board and management for incompetence as well as breach of fiduciary duties to recover some of the losses. Current management owes the company and Malaysians that much.

The other victims are less obvious. They include FELDA settlers now deprived of better schools, smart young Malays who excelled on their IB tests but now cannot go abroad, and those dedicated GLC Malay executives whose reputations are now tainted because of the shenanigans of those monkeys at 1MDB.

Those Malaysian officials who responded last Wednesday to the DOJ’s lawsuit and those Malays who still strenuously defend Malaysian Official 1 have yet to recognize these victims. That’s the terrible shame and great Malay tragedy.

 

 

 

The Noose Tightens on 1MDB

July 20th, 2016

 

The Noose Tightens on 1MDB

M. Bakri Musa

 

 

For those who missed the live-streaming of the United States Department of Justice Press Conference on Wednesday, July 20, 2016 in Washington, DC, regarding the 1MDB scandal, here is a partial transcript. The full transcript is available at recapd.com.

A few preliminary observations. First, this civil filing of asset forfeiture is only the first action following an intense and still ongoing investigation. There could be other charges later on, including criminal ones against specific individuals. The presence of senior officials from the criminal divisions of the DOJ and IRS, as well as the top FBI official, at that press conference would indicate this. Assets do not become corrupt by themselves; individuals through their corrupt acts created those assets.

Second, this is a civil complaint against the assets that were acquired from alleged corrupt acts perpetrated on 1MDB. Those assets are now legally tied up. There could be two possible responses. At one extreme the owners of those assets would choose not to challenge the complaint at which point those assets become US Government property and will be auctioned off. The US Government would recoup its costs and the people of Malaysia would be entitled to claim the leftover. The other would be for their owners to challenge the order. That would incur substantial legal fees as the filings are in many courts and your adversary is the US Government with its near unlimited resources. And American lawyers are expensive. With those assets frozen, their owners could not liquidate or mortgage them to finance their defense. Knowing that should be satisfaction enough for Malaysians.

A court challenge would be very enlightening. Rest assured that the ensuing trials would reveal much of the truth.

Third, this is by far the largest (in monetary terms) asset seizure in US history. As such those professional prosecutors would not settle for anything less than total victory. Before this, the largest forfeiture under the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative involved the Amsterdam-based Vimpel.com, a telecommunication giant, and its wholly-owned subsidiary in Uzbekistan. That involved top Uzbek officials related to that country’s president.

Fourth was the impressive performance by Attorney General Loretta Lynch and her team at that press conference. It is not simply a matter that she is a seasoned professional prosecutor with a Harvard law degree while her Malaysian counterpart is a failed UMNO operative with a legal qualification from an obscure British Inn of Courts.

 

Attorney-General Lynch:  Today the Department of Justice has filed a civil complaint seeking to forfeit and recover more than [US]$1 billion in assets associated with an international conspiracy to launder funds stolen from 1MDB. This $1B in assets are just a portion of the more than $3B that was stolen from 1MDB and laundered to American institutions in violation of US law.

1MDB was created in 2009 to initiate economic development through international partnership and foreign direct investment with the ultimate goal of improving the well-being of the Malaysian people. Unfortunately and tragically, a number of corrupt officials treated this public trust as a personal bank account. Our complaint alleges that from 2001 to 2015 these officials and associates conspired to misappropriate and launder billions of dollars from 1MDB. They laundered their funds through opaque actions in bank accounts in countries around the world including Switzerland, Singapore and the United States. The funds were then used to purchase a range of assets for the conspirators and their relatives and associates including high-end real estate in New York and Los Angeles and art works by Monet and a Bombardier Jet aircraft.

Today’s case is the largest single action ever brought by the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative which was established by AG Eric Holder in 2010 to forfeit the proceeds of foreign official corruption and where possible to use the recovered assets to benefit the people harmed. This case and the kleptocracy initiative as a whole should serve as a sign of our firm commitment to fighting international corruption. And it should also send a signal that the Department of Justice is determined to prevent the American financial system to be used as a conduit for corruption, and should make clear to corrupt officials around the world that we will be relentless in our efforts to deny them the proceeds of their crimes.

 

Assistant US AG (Criminal Division) Leslie R Caldwell: The complaint filed today really goes in great detail about the complex web of transactions these co-conspirators used to launder billions of dollars they stole from the people of Malaysia.

What I’d like to focus on now is allegations involving two bonds offerings in 2012 through which 1MDB raised some of the money siphoned off by the corrupt officials and their associates. The stated purpose of the bond offerings was to allow 1MDB to raise money to invest in various energy assets of the Malaysian Government and people. Almost immediately after receiving the proceeds of the two bond issues, roughly 40 percent of the money that was raised, which was about $1.7B, was transferred out of 1MDB account and into Swiss bank account that was in the name of a shell corporation incorporated in the British Virgin Islands. The complain alleges that the name of that shell company was chosen because it sounded like the name of a legitimate company that was involved in the bond offering but in fact the Swiss bank account was controlled by corrupt officials and associates.

From Switzerland the corrupt officials transferred money using a series of transactions involving more shell companies and bank accounts located all over the globe. Eventually more than $223M of that money found its way in the account of shell companies whose beneficial owner was a close relative of a senior 1MDB official and that individual used the the money to buy luxury real estate in the US and other assets and also used the money to fund a motion picture company called Red Granite who in turn used more than $100M of that money to finance the award-winning 2013 film “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Of course neither 1MDB nor the Malaysian people saw a penny of profit from that film or the other assets purchased with funds siphoned from 1MDB. Instead that money went to relatives and associates of the corrupt officials of 1MDB and others.

Because the assets were laundered money, the future rights to that film are subject to the forfeiture complaint filed today in Los Angeles.

The assistance we’ve gotten from international partners has been critical in identifying and restraining assets and I think that international cooperation and the action we are taking today which I said is the largest action taken to date in connection with our kleptocracy initiative should send a message to kleptocrats and corrupt kleptocrats and others that the US is not a safe haven for their stolen money and they cannot avoid law enforcement through shell companies, nominee entities and other structures that are essentially designed to thwart law enforcement. The department will continue to track and seize assets that kleptocrats and other corrupt officials steal from the people of their countries.

 

US Attorney, Central California (Los Angeles) Eileen M Decker:    Another phase of this money laundering scheme occurred in early 2013 in connection with a third bond offering arranged by Goldman Sachs International. In this offering, 1MDB raised approximately $3 billion purportedly to form a joint venture with an entity from Au Dhabi to promote growth   Instead the officials misappropriated a significant amount of the funds raised. In fact only days after the initial bond sale, approximately $1.26 billion was diverted for the benefit of individuals associated with 1MDB. Approximately $137 million of the pilfered money was spent to purchase works of art, including a $34 million work by Claude Monet. It was not to the benefit of the population of Malaysia but to enhance the luxury and lavish lifestyles of those stealing money from 1MDB. Funds diverted from the third bond offering were also traced to the purchase of an interest in the Park Lane Hotel in New York. We seek to forfeit approximately a quarter billion dollars invested in that luxury hotel. The laundering of the proceeds continued throughout 2013 with an additional $106 million used to purchase an interest in EMI Music Publishing.

EMI is the world’s third largest music publishing company by revenue, and the company has the rights to publish approximately 2.3 million musical compositions including a number of top hits from Grammy award-winning artists. Since the conspirators purchased them in EMI, it was they and not the citizens of Malaysia who earn money every time those songs were performed publicly, recorded, or downloaded. In seeking to seize these forfeited items the Department of Justice is sending a message that we will not allow the United States to become a playground for the corrupt and that we will not allow it to be a platform for money laundering or a place to hide and invest in stolen riches.

 

 

FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe:  As alleged in the complaint, not long after 1MDB was established in 2009 corrupt officials at 1MDB and their associates began a sophisticated scheme to enrich themselves. In the first two years of their existence, almost $1billion was transferred out of 1MDB to bank accounts in shell corporations that were controlled by associates of corrupt 1MDB officials. The funds were stolen under the pretense of having 1MDB invest in an oil exploration joint venture with a foreign partner. On paper, the $1billion was to be 1MDB’s in what purported to be national resource rights. But this wasn’t a legitimate investment for 1MDB or the Malaysian people. Instead, the funds transferred to the shell companies were used for the personal enrichment of the corrupt officials and their associates. They used the money to pay gambling debts at Las Vegas casinos, they rented luxury yachts, they hired an interior decorator in London and spent millions on properties some of which is subject to this seizure and forfeitures. Among them was a jet purchased at the price of $35 million.

So why does this matter so much to us? Certainly there is a lot going on in the world right now, terrorists attacks, violent crimes, and serious threats to American citizens and people around the world. Why does a corruption case halfway around the world matter so much to us here today?

Well, I’ll tell you a few of the reasons. First, because some of the profits of these schemes were invested in the US. And when corrupt officials bring their ill-gotten gains to the US, they also bring with them their corrupt practices and disregard for the rule of law. And that presents a threat to our economy, impacts trade and investment, fuels the growth of criminal enterprises, and undermines our democratic processes.

Second, because the stable, healthy democracies around the world are the cornerstone of global security, the more we can do to help our international partners establish and maintain stable governments, accountable to the rule of law, the more we do to ensure US national security. And finally, we did it because the FBI and the DOJ, and our colleagues in federal law enforcement are uniquely positioned to provide the sort of assistance. The Malaysian people were defrauded on an enormous scale. Its schemes whose tentacles reached around the world. This case is beyond any single agency’s ability to effectively investigate. We have investigators and prosecutors with deep experience working on matters like this so our environment is a natural fit.

Last year we established three dedicated international corruption squads based in New York, Los Angeles, and here in Washington, DC. These squads include agents, analysts and accountants who are experts in complex financial schemes. These specialized teams are showing real results. This is the largest kleptocracy seizure in US history. We hope this investigation will send a message to corrupt officials around the world that no person, no company, no organization is too big, too powerful, or too prominent. No one is above or beyond the law.

This case is ongoing, Corruption unfortunately, will never be eradicated because quite frankly, greed never goes away. But we are committed to working with our partners here at home and around the world to do what we can to stop it, to ensure the legitimacy of public officials and to create a level playing field for all.

 

IRS Criminal Investigation Chief Richard Webber:        1MDB was originally established to drive strategic initiatives for the long term economic development of Malaysia. Instead, it is alleged that money was siphoned from this fund for personal investment, not for the good of the Malaysian people and not for the achievement of their goals.

The case is another example of the ability to follow money through complex money laundering schemes and the web of opaque transactions and fraudulent shell corporations. In October 2015 my LA field office joined the investigation specifically focusing on Red Granite Pictures. Approximately $238 million was wired to Red Granite Capital in Singapore, an entity controlled by Riza Aziz. Wire transfers totaling approximately $64 million was sent from Red Granite Capital account for an account at Citi National Bank in the US, maintained by Red Granite Pictures, a production company also owned by Aziz. This money was used to fund Red Granite Pictures operations including the production of the film “The Wolf on Wall Street.” Additionally the misappropriations was used to acquire $100 millions in relics in the US and the United Kingdom and elsewhere for the benefit of Aziz, including in the list of properties, and we have the properties outlined in the civil complaint in various diagrams but the properties include a Beverly Hills mansion, currently under construction, a Park Laurel condo in New York City, and a townhouse in the United Kingdom.

Fighting worldwide corruption is in the interest of the United states. Corruption threatened good governance, sustainability development and the democratic process and fair business practices. Corruption erodes trust in government and private institutions alike and undermines confidence and fairness of open markets, and it breeds contempt for the rule of law. This investigation is continuing and ongoing. We will not allow the massive and blatant aversion of dollars from 1MDB and the alleged laundering of those funds through US financial institutions to continue.

This case represents a model for international cooperation in significant cross border money laundering matters and sends a message that criminals cannot evade law enforcement authorities by simply laundering money through multiple jurisdictions and through a web of shell corporations.

 

 

Cast From The Herd. Memories of a Matriarchal Malaysia

July 4th, 2016

Now available at major online stores in both print and e-versions.

LCCN: 2016909393

ISBN:  978-1532871972

 

 

 

 

 

Inspiration From The Koran: Command Good and Forbid Evil

June 13th, 2016

Inspiration From The Koran:  Command Good and Forbid Evil

  1. Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

 

[Presented at the South Valley Islamic Community Iftar, Morgan Hill, California, Sunday, June 12, 2016.]

 

Ramadan is the month of the Koran. Its first few verses were revealed to Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) during this month. Thus it is a tradition for Muslims to recite the Koran communally during this time.

A few years ago I was in a panel discussion where one of the panelists asked a group of students to think of the Koran from a different perspective. He challenged them to cite the one ayat (verse) in the Holy Book that meant the most to them, and why.

It was remarkable that no two individuals quoted the same verse. Each gave compelling arguments and heartfelt reasons for their choice. That reflected the vast richness of the Koran as a source of inspiration to Muslims.

For example, one student related his visit to the Grand Canyon, enraptured by its breathtaking sights. It recalled for him the Koranic verse on the beauty and grandeur of Allah’s creation. He was referring to Surah Al Ra’d, “He it is Who spread out the earth and placed therein firm mountains and streams ….” (13:3)

That verse transformed for him what was a popular tourist destination to one filled with reverence. Indeed to Native Americans, the Grand Canyon is holy.

Before that, the verse affected him no differently than those other six thousand ones in the Koran. Through the spectacular sights and overwhelming silence of the Grand Canyon he felt the presence of Allah, manifested by that particular creation in all its infinite beauty and mystery.

Another recalled his first day in a New York City classroom. He was astounded that his fellow classmates came from literally all corners of the earth, spoke strange languages, wore bewildering colors and style of clothing, and ate exotic foods that they had brought from home. The cacophony of attires, faces and voices intimidated him.

Then he remembered the eloquent verse in the Koran which said, approximately translated, that Allah could have created mankind as clones of each other (Surah Al Maidah 5:48, among others). Instead He created us in our different tribes, cultures, languages, preferences, and yes, skin color so we could learn from each other. Then we would not only appreciate our differences but also embrace them, thereby enriching our lives. That was Allah’s grand design that he saw in his class that day.

The most touching was the inspiration of a student who was a recent refugee. She described her harrowing journey to escape the chaos and tyranny of her native land, of staying ahead of killer agents of the state, and of crossing treacherous seas.

Throughout it all what kept her sane and determined was Allah’s command, expressed in Surah Al Nisa, “. . . Was not God’s earth vast enough that you might have migrated therein? . . .  ” (4:97) She was also inspired by the Prophet’s own hijra, of being driven away from his birthplace.

Three individuals from different parts of the world with totally different experiences and emotions, yet all drawing their inspirations and words of comfort from the Koran.

That simple exercise had me thinking. Which ayat in the Koran meant the most to me and why? That prompted me to re-read the Koran in a different light. My Arabic is rudimentary and the Koran is in classical Arabic. Even if I were to be fluent in Arabic I would no more understand the Koran than a native English speaker would the subtleties of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I would need guidance.

We are blessed today to have many excellent translations of and commentaries on the Koran.

My inspirational ayat is not a full one but a phrase incorporated in a handful of ayats. Amr bil Ma’ruf wa Nahy an al Munkar

( ??????  ?? ??? ?  ???????? ??? )

Simply and briefly but too far off translated as “Command good, forbid evil!”

Amr means to make it a practice or let it be your norm, a part of you; ma’ruf, fair, just, right, decent or honorable; nahi, to distance yourself; and mungkar, bad, foul, evil, wrong, unjust, indecent, or dishonorable.

To me that phrase is the essence of the Koran, its thesis sentence if you will. I draw the greatest inspiration from that phrase, its words to live by. That phrase also encapsulates for me the meaning of being a Muslim. It is Islam’s Golden Rule.

Chronologically it first appeared in the Meccan Surah Luqman (31:17) relating the advice Prophet Luqman gave his son, “O my son! Perform the prayer, enjoin right and forbid wrong, and bear patiently whatever may befall you!”

In the Koran that phrase first appeared in Surah Al’Imran (3:104): “Let there be among you a community calling to the good, enjoining the right, and forbidding wrong. It is they who shall prosper.”

Relating this to the experience of the first student, knowing the Grand Canyon to be Allah’s creation, he would do much good by respecting it, as in not not polluting or defacing it. He would certainly do great harm if he were to bulldoze its majestic columns and imposing ridges, or through careless acts of littering and carving of graffiti.

As for the second student, seeing human diversity as Allah’s grand design, he would do good by embracing it. He would certainly do great harm if he were to insist that others dress like him or share his belief.

The third student best lived the command to do no evil. When evil is all around it is difficult to be on the straight path. We cannot always prevent evil or when in so doing we would endanger ourselves, but we can always distance ourselves from it, as she did by emigrating.

An oft quoted hadith has it that when we see evil being perpetrated we should use our hands to prevent it, meaning, physically. If unable to do so or if in so doing we put ourselves in harm’s way, then we must voice our disapproval. Where even that could lead us to danger, as in Malaysia with its notorious Internal Security Act, then we should disapprove it in our hearts, though that is the least favored by Allah.

How does the injunction “Command good and forbid evil” relate to the five pillars of our faith?

There is nothing intrinsically good in the act of declaring the shahada, professing our faith in God and Prophet Muhammad as His Last Messenger. It is good only if in so doing we were to be reminded of His message and to follow it. The same could be said of praying.

Shahada and prayers are but professions of intent. Unless translated into deeds, they would be nothing more than vibrations of our vocal cords, only slightly better than a recording being re-played.

I remember an incident a few decades ago when Imam Anwar, the father of our present Imam Ilyas, was giving a sermon. There were kids running around interfering with his delivery. Imam Anwar quietly tucked away his prepared sermon and shifted to an impromptu lecture on mosque etiquette.

It was good that kids came to mosques, he said, but they must learn the proper behavior. They were never too young to start learning. If they were to run around and disturb others praying, then their parents should interrupt their prayer to control their kids. That would do more good to more people than for their parents to continue praying while ignoring their misbehaving children.

I just saw a video going viral of a woman collapsing while doing her Taraweeh prayer in a Malaysian mosque. It was caught on its closed-circuit camera. Not one of her fellow congregants stopped their prayer to help! They continued on as if nothing had happened. Eventually a lady from the rear rushed to help her. The Imam too was oblivious of the raucous back in the women’s section; he continued on.

Once as a surgeon in Malaysia, I reprimanded a junior doctor for abandoning his patient in the emergency room while he was off for his Friday prayer. To that doctor, his personal salvation came ahead of his patient’s safety.

In a similar fashion, what were they thinking when they yelled “Allah hu Akhbar” (God is Great!) and then slit their victim’s throat or go on rampages? Those actions mock our great faith!

As for fasting, the only intrinsic good to the act is the reduced caloric intake that would be good to our health and longevity. If during Ramadan we were to go further and reflect on the Koran and translate its messages into deeds, then we would be on to something good beyond ourselves.

As for Hajj, its inherent good is akin to a tourist contributing to the travel industry, with jobs and economic activities created therefrom. If in performing it you pollute the holy city, elbowed your way to the Kaaba, and on returning you are back to your old wily ways, then you mock the sanctity of your pilgrimage; likewise if you were to finance your Hajj with illicit funds.

The one pillar of our faith whose execution is intrinsically good is zakat, the giving of tithe. The goodness of the act is obvious to its recipients; less obvious are the many benefits to society. The Koran says that tithe purifies your wealth. Stagnant wealth, like water, is unhealthy. Economists talk of keeping money circulating, and measure the vigor of an economy by how fast money exchanges hands, its velocity. Enlightened policymakers advocate guaranteed minimum income for the same reason. Zakat does both; that is its inherent virtue.

I am blessed that as a physician I could execute this Koranic injunction in the most personal way to serve my fellow humans. The same could be said of teachers and nurses.

There is yet another reason for my choosing that ayat. When I translate it into my native Malay, it parallels the exquisite brevity of the original Arabic, in addition to its unabashed assertiveness and arresting alliteration: Biasakan yang baik, jauhi yang jahat. Make good your norm and distance yourself from evil.

That remains my challenge as well as guidance.

Reflections On Ramadan: Beyond The Fast

June 5th, 2016

Reflections on Ramadan: Beyond The Fast
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa

[First presented at the South Valley Islamic Community’s Iftar, Morgan Hill, Ca, July 13, 2013. Reposted here.]

When giving religious talks during Ramadan, it is customary to quote the Koran and hadith generously. In deference to those whose tajweed is exquisite and those who are far more knowledgeable on hadith, I will depart from tradition. I do not wish to strain their patience!

Instead I will share my perspective on Ramadan drawing on three sources: one, my earlier experience as a surgeon in an Oregon lumber town; two, the findings from a landmark experiment in social psychology; and three, comparing Ramadan in Malaysia to that in America.

I will also depart from tradition in that being a physician, I will not enumerate the numerous and obvious health benefits to reduced caloric intake, a consequence of fasting.

Surgeon in Oregon

As a young surgeon in Oregon, I treated many workers with severe injuries from the huge local sawmill. To better understand the mechanisms of their injuries, the manager took me on a tour of his factory.

Those massive logs were effortlessly thrown by giant cranes onto steel conveyors with the ease of your tossing away used chopsticks. The logs were then spun around by rollers with studs to be de-barked, much like a housewife peeling carrots. High-speed circular saws would slice the logs back and forth, reducing them to pieces of lumber. If not for the bone-shaking floor vibrations, the high-pitched sound reminded me of a plugged-up vacuum cleaner.

Those pieces were then mechanically sorted and forced through yet more spinning saws to be cut into specified lengths. Then as they rolled to the finishing line they were subjected to the human touch and scrutiny, with pieces that were broken, uneven, or otherwise blemished shunted aside. The final products were then stacked in a special room to be “cured.”

This curing room was quiet and cool, its humidity, temperature and airflow strictly controlled. The lack of noise and vibrations was instantly felt; it was a tranquil oasis in marked contrast to the rest of the mill. On the factory floor we shouted and hand-gestured; in the curing room we whispered and cupped our mouths. Even the rhythm of our walk changed, from brisk noisy strides to soft silent steps, as in a mosque. We feared disturbing the sanctity of the room.

The manager told me that after the stresses of being cut, pushed, spun and thrown around in the mill, the lumber needed “rest time” so they could withstand the inevitable subsequent stresses at the construction sites or furniture factories. Without this curing, the lumber would readily bend, splinter or even break, soiling the factory’s brand.

Now if an inanimate object – wood – has to be “cured” before it faces its next phase of stress, imagine how much more humans would need this time and space. This is what Ramadan means to me; a “time out” so we could pause and reflect after having been through the mill in our regular daily lives!

Plants and trees too need this equivalent change of pace. The forced dormancy of the long cold weather ensures a full bloom come spring, and with that a bountiful harvest. Winter is the plants’ Ramadan.

Children and their Marshmallows

My second thought comes from reading about the Stanford marshmallow study on preschool children. They were each given a marshmallow, with instructions that should they refrain from eating it for 15 minutes, they would be rewarded with an extra one. As expected, some devoured theirs right away, others took longer. Nonetheless there were those who successfully restrained themselves and were thus duly rewarded. The study reveals that marked individual differences towards instant gratification could be discerned at a very early age.

If that was the only conclusion, the study would not be regarded as “one of the most successful behavioral experiments.”

Years later when those kids were of college age, the lead experimenter, prompted by anecdotal accounts, did a follow-up study. It turned out those “impulse controlled” children (those who successfully deferred devouring their treats) did better academically as well as disciplinary-wise in school. Indeed, the ability to delay eating marshmallows was a better predictor of scholastic achievement than IQ tests or parent’s educational level!

This insight is leveraged by enlightened educators. The largest operator of charter schools in America, KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), emphasized character building as well as a rigorous curriculum. Part of that character building is teaching children the equivalent of not eating their marshmallows right away, to defer their gratifications. The school has been remarkably successful despite its students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This marshmallow study has other and wider implications. If a culture is predisposed to immediate gratification, its members would not likely to save their earnings. The consequent low capital formation (from lack of savings) leads to economic stagnation, the bane of many Third World societies.

The marshmallow study also helps explain why those who acquire wealth through inheritance, lottery, or preferential treatment rarely keep it while those who acquire it through hard work do. The latter have self-discipline – key to their success – and more importantly, to maintaining that success.

If the ability to delay devouring marshmallows for fifteen minutes among preschoolers is strongly associated with later academic and other successes, imagine the good if we could delay it for the entire daylight hours! That is the value and significance of Ramadan; to instill self-discipline and acquire the habit of delayed gratification.

That this trait could be detected as early as the preschool age suggests that it is more “nature” than “nurture,” or stated differently, more genetic than environmental. This is reinforced by an earlier study (substituting candies for marshmallows) comparing Black and Indian (subcontinent) children in Jamaica. As a group, the Black children had difficulty restraining themselves. Another significant variable was the absence of a father in the house. Surprisingly, socio-economic status was not a factor. In Jamaica there are significant differences in the economic, educational and other achievements between those two ethnic groups.

In a recent twist to this classic study, the children were first “primed,” and using crayons instead of marshmallows. They were randomly assigned into a “reliable” or “unreliable” group. In both, the children were each given a bag of crayons with instructions that if they were not to open it until the supervisor returned, they would be given, in addition, a bigger and newer set.

For the “reliable” group, the supervisor would duly return, and as promised the successful children were rewarded. For the “unreliable” group however, the adult would return but apologize profusely for not being able to bring the promised bigger and newer bag to those who had been successful.

This crayon experiment was then repeated, this time using stickers. This done, the two groups were tested as per the original marshmallow study.

Nine of the 14 children in the “reliable” group successfully delayed eating their marshmallows, as compared to only one in the “unreliable” group. Children in the “reliable” group also waited longer (four times more) than those in the “unreliable” group before eating their treats.

This suggests that we can train our young to delay their gratification; meaning, we can effectively instill self-discipline at a very young age. This tilts the balance towards “nurture” over “nature,” contrary to the Jamaican data. For this training to be effective however, you must first establish an atmosphere of trust. The children must first have faith in the adults of their lives.

Relating to Ramadan, when we encourage our young to fast, we are training them to delay their gratification; we are instilling self-discipline.

There is yet another insight to the marshmallow study, and it comes not from the quantitative data rather from directly observing those children. The “impulse controlled” kids were busy actively distracting themselves as with singing, sitting on their hands (lest they be tempted to grab the marshmallow), closing their eyes, or kneading their skirts, analogous to mythical Greek sailors stuffing their ears with bee’s wax and Ulysses tying himself to the mast to restrain themselves from the call of the Siren song.

Relating this to Ramadan, it is easier to fast if we are working or otherwise occupied. Indeed, the Koran and hadith exhort us not to sleep or idle ourselves when fasting. That would be makhruh (non-meritorious). Instead we are to continue on with our daily routine.

Fasting in a Muslim Versus Secular Society

Last, I draw from my experience of Ramadan in a religiously-obsessed society, Malaysia, versus in a secular Western one, America.

In Malaysia, the moral squads are out in full force during Ramadan. If you are caught not fasting, you will be paraded around town in a hearse (to remind you of death), quite apart from being fined, jailed or even whipped. Never mind that you may be a diabetic or had just stepped off a trans-Pacific flight. This cruel punitive streak, alas far too common, is the antithesis of the Ramadan spirit.

Malaysians must fast; it is the law and not as it should be, a matter of faith and personal conviction. Consequently, the spiritual value is often missed, or worse, corrupted as manifested by culinary extravaganzas and ostentatious piety. Malaysians simply rearrange their gluttony from daytime to nighttime. Ramadan’s spirit of restraint is conspicuous by its absence, and its replacement with exuberant excesses.

Fasting in America poses its own challenges. Your co-workers having their usual lunches and the ubiquitous tantalizing food commercials aside, there is the matter of the seasons. When in Canada and Ramadan was in midsummer (nearly 24 hours of daylight), I wrote my father of my theological dilemma. He gently reminded me that fasting is not Allah’s torture test and that if it is too stressful then I should follow Malaysian time. My late father grasped intuitively the essence of Ramadan. May Allah bless his soul for that wise and practical counsel!

Obsessed with the rituals, Malaysians have reduced fasting to a series of acts to accumulate religious Brownie points. Fasting is more than a ritual; it is a process. As important as fasting is, the greater import is where it would take us. It should take us to heightened faith and greater compassion. It should take us deeper into the revelation of the Koran, for it was during this holy month that our Prophet Mohammad, s.a.w., first received his revelation from Allah.

Fasting is good not because the Koran says so, rather fasting is good and that is why the Koran exhorts us to observe Ramadan.