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Islamizing a management model: The case of Total Quality Management in Malaysia 


Within the paradigm of transfer and borrowing, how and why does an idea gets culturalized and contextualized from one nation to another taking historical, ideological, religious, and cultural considerations in the process? This brief analytical paper will analyze that nature of the circularity of transfer of a model of educational innovation as it relates to curriculum reform. It will look at how a recipient nation’s ideology (with religion as one of the guiding principles) contextualizes the acculturating process of transfer. The case of the implementation of the Total Quality Management (TQM) principles in a Malaysian educational context will be the illustration. This essay in short attempts to answer the question in what way is the Total Quality Management model enculturated in Malaysia within the context and via its application as an educational restructuring program? 

The main framework of this essay will be derived from Steiner Khamsi’s (1997) idea of “culturalist” model of transfer. Literature review pertaining to the concept of total Quality Management and those related to the analysis will be reviewed. The relevance of this research lies in its tracing of the transnational flow of an idea and how the indigenization of it is engineered.

Review of Selected Literature

Steiner-Khamsi (1997) called upon those in the field of comparative education to ask question what has been transferred and why. She believed that this post-colonial perspective of educational research could help us move beyond normative discussions such as “system learning, system transfer and system equity.” (p. 26). She argued that in many cases of reform, what is being transferred are models which have been contested in the country it was first introduced and tested in the borrower country and reintroduced in the former. By looking at such circularity of transfer this she concluded that the political/ideological discourse can be discerned Steiner-Khamsi’s (1997) “culturalist” rather than consensual and dependency perspective in analyzing reforms and educational practice modeling is relevant in looking at the quality management movement in this case study. G. Michael Vavrek (1992) gave a historical account of the development of W. Edward’s Deming’s concept of quality management. Deming, a distinguished professor of management at Columbia University since 1985 (p. 2) originated the concept of quality in management comprising of a fourteen-point methodology with the underlying missions of improving organizations, particularly corporations, through continuously focusing on improvement. A statistician by training, Deming believed that corporations, albeit complex systems can be improved if people work smarter and management provides “insight into how to improve output and efficiency” (p. 3).

Vavrek (1992) wrote that Deming’s philosophy gained popularity in Japan after World War II, and his idea was not well received in the United States. It was only in the 1980s that American corporations responded to the success of Japanese corporations trained in the Dewing philosophy. Vavrek (1991) wrote of Deming’s success in that his idea was revered in Japan by the fact that “The annual Deming Prize, the most coveted industrial honor in the country” became a testimony of the Japanese commitment to qualify improvement. Schmidt and Finnigan (1993) wrote about the concept of total quality management based upon the philosophy of W. Edwards Deming. These authors discussed the basic ideas behind TQM which comprises the underlying assumptions such as the complexity of the modern organization, the modern organization for quality product and services, continuous improvement or guiding principle, working in teams, and openness and trust (pp. 4-8). Only through commitment by the different levels of management to the TQM principles can an organization succeed. Schmidt and Finnigan (1993) note that TQM is a synthesis of long-standing arrangement concepts “which in combination produce a way different way of operating an organization” (p. 29). They however admit that TQM “has worked in some organizations and failed in others” (p. 29). 

The post World War II transnational flow of Deming’s philosophy from America to Japan, which resulted in a Nipponization of an American management idea, can best be looked at in part, through the ages of Ritzer’s (1998) McDonaldization thesis. Ritzer (1998) talked about the phenomena of the franchisation of concepts ala McDonald’s fast food chain, in that elements such as rationality, calculability and efficiency are predominant. From fast food to credit cards and educational systems, McDonaldization has spread not only in America but also globally, carrying with it the discourse which perceive human behaviors as systems which can be rationalized, predicted and controlled—minds within the demands of productivity through efficiency.

Ritzer (1998) suggests the idea of stepping out of this McDonaldization mode of thinking occasionally in order to contain the further spread of this improved way of being. The complexity by which ideas flow transnationally is analyzed by Arjun Appadurai (1996) in which “a general theory of global cultural processes” (p. 45) is attempted to be derived at. Appadurai (1996) wrote of the fine dimensions by which the complex flow occurs within what he called “ethnoscape,” “financescape,” “mediascape”, “technoscape” and “ideascape” (p. 45). He asked one to move beyond looking at transfer of these dimensions; from conceptualizing them in mechanical terms such as sender-receiver to one based upon complexity and chaos theory. 

Appadurai (1996) believes that the conditions of postmodernity entail such and differences in transnational flow to be looked at not only through historical-materialistic, but more pertinently through culturalist and contextualized frame of analysis in order for a fractal pattern of such movements to emerge. In this context, similar to pattern of such movements to emerge. In this context, similar to Steiner-Khamsi’s (1997) advocacy for a “culturalist” perspective, the complexity of the flow of the TQM idea—from its American origin to its Nipponization and later its Americanization—can be traced when analysis is further made in case of Malaysia’s adoption of TQM model. Philip McMichael (1996) analyzes the discourse embedded in the development projects which have characterized the dependency syndrome of the Third World particularly within the age of corporate developmentalism.

Through an intriguing web of interlocking systems of production, the First World nations particularly the United States have been able to work in cohort with Third World leaders in a production scheme which transformed the global system into a huge, rationalized and efficient production house. Transnational banks, cheap pools of labor, authoritarian regimes, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank developmental projects are the main denominators of the continuing system of international distributive system of injustice which has evolved from the times of Marshall Plan and Bretton Woods. Particularly relevant to the context of TQM is the notion of transfer of discourse on rationality in the political-economic paradigm of developmentalism. In effect, the TQM model provides the leit motif of the McDonaldization of national economic system modeled after a sophisticated version of neo-classical economics. 

Transfer of rationalized model as such as TQM is made possible though education and training which take the missionary zeal of making the workforce literate enough to be part of the corporatist model of development. David Ashton and Francis Green (1996) wrote of the relationship between global capitalist formation and the primacy of education and training for skills-formation. Echoing the idea of human capital revolution, modern nation-states such as those in Southeast Asia becomes integrated into the world economy though educational and training models borrowed from business systems, and its attendant discourses. Skills training, in forms tailored from the shopfloor workers to top management is geared towards preparing nation states to be integrated into the global capitalist hut. Ashton and Green (1996) argued that the institutional and political context of skills formation training must become a necessary point analysis in our effort to frame the issue within a materialist conception of education and training systems.

Enculturizing TQM

In the foregoing brief review of selected literature, I have attempted to provide necessary linkages of concepts to contextualize and frame the discussion on the genealogy of the TQM model. Steiner Khamsi’s (1997) “culturalist” perspective presents the paradigm of looking at how the TQM idea, American in origin and contested and unpopular in its applicability in post-World War II corporate America, is fervently embraced in Japan. Vavrek’s (1992) account of the historical development of Deming’s philosophy of management also alludes to the notion that because the Japanese work ethos is ripe for the rapid embracement of the rational-efficient model of organizational control, the Nipponization of the TQM becomes a natural phenomena. It was not until the 1980s that the circularity of transfer became evident; American corporations began to see the success of an American management concept tested in Japan. How then does this circularity of transfer relate to the indigenization of the concept in a developing country such as Malaysia? 

Whilst TQM is American in origin, Malaysia can be said to have looked at and emulated the success of the Nipponized version of the concept. Post-Independence Malaysia was searching for a model of corporate management, which would propel the nation into rapid industrialization. Particularly in the 1980s during the early years of the Mahathir Administration, development policies pursued along capitalist lines carried the rhetoric called “The Look East Policy”; to particularly emulate Japan as a model of an advanced industrialized nation of the Far East which has been able to keep its cultural and spiritual tradition intact. A Nipponized TQM, among other models of organizational change, was adopted and enculturized to fit the demands of the Malaysian national ideology. 

Islamization, an ongoing process of hybridizing contending incoming ideologies relating to economic, political, and cultural development became a major frame of reference in any endeavor to borrow and adapt systems of social change. The 1980s onwards was a period of social, political, and cultural, and educational re-engineering which saw the emergence of concepts such as Islamic banking system, Islamic guidelines on broadcasting, Islamic-based curricular approach, and the compulsory teaching of the course Islamic civilization for first-year undergraduates in Malaysian universities.

It can be said that it was the beginning of a period of McDonalization of Islamic values, which continue to this day into the Islamization of the stock market and the financial trading system! Appadurai’s’(1996) notion of “ideoscape” is applicable if we take into consideration the impact of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the exporting of its ideology to Islamic nations worldwide. The Islamization of Malaysia can be analyzed as the nation’s creative reaction against any foreseeable Islamic extremist-type of political contestation against the multiracial ruling coalition party. Malaysia’s first university-based TQM institute was set up in 1991 at its first management university (Malaysia’s sixth government university 15 years of age then). I observed and analyzed its then director’s reinterpretation and indeginization of the concept according to Islamic principles. 

The insitute’s first director Professor Zein-Yusof, a strong advocate of Islamization in management looked at the concept of the “quality person” as one who is Islamic in totality of his/her principles of living and being and who manages his/her organization based not only upon Malaysia’s Islamic-based national ideology, but also upon moral and spiritual values. TQM is indigenized as the managing of oneself as a moral social being as and as a God-fearing servant living by the grace of Allah. The Nipponized and the Americanized concept of quality, in this Malaysian interpretation is thus not alien to the total quality being if it helps one to diligently perform the daily prayers, give alms to the poor, fast thirty days in the month of Ramadhan, and perform the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Productivity and the drive for profits, and to be as rich as one can be is also in line with this Islamic conception of quality living. Islam, according to this advant garde interpretation calls upon its adherents to adopt modern concepts of management as such as TQM and breathe spiritual dimension into them. In fact, the idea of applying quality management principles has its goals in adding spiritual value to the business organizations so that higher productivity can be achieved which entails more alms (zakat) can be channeled to the poor and needy. 

The more zakat is disbursed, the faster poverty can be alleviated. The work of the TQM institute involved process consulting for corporate and governmental organizations particularly in the northern region of Malaysia. In 1997, after a year of pilot project work, the institute in collaboration with The Ministry of Education helped certify two government schools (primary and secondary) for the ISO 9000 certification. In the following year, the university’s library became the first college library in the world to be awarded such a certificate of management fitness.


The limitation of this essay does not permit an extended and in-depth discussion on the complexity of the indigenization as applied to the case of Malaysia. Suffice it is to however to note that the mission of the institute is to Islamize management practices by making persons, processes, and products “more Islamic” via the injecting of Islamic values into the otherwise “soul-less” framework of productive and rational management. Quality and perfection is interpreted as a demand in Islam and those who stray from this path will be made accountable in this world as well as in that of the hereafter. Islamic TQM begins with the self, extending into quality circles, contributing to the spiritual well beingness of the organization and spiraling into the productivity of the nation and beyond. 

Coming back to the question “in what way is the TQM model enculturized in Malaysia within the context and via its application as an educational restructuring program?”, the answer lies in its ideological reconceptualization as it responded to the value-free context of the original concept. It is that TQM has undergone an Islamic and Malaysianized facelift to be made presentable to the customers it is intended to serve. What has been transferred is culturalized so that its “habitus”, using Bourdieu’s (1994) term will be made relevant to those living in the nation-state governed by an Islamic-based national ideology. The dimension of the circularity of transfer lies in the fact that Deming’s philosophy was contested in the United States in the 1950s, popularized in Japan, rediscovered in the United States in the 1980s, and the Nipponized version was adopted in Malaysia and given an Islamic slant in the 1990s. With the beginning of Malaysia’s business involvement in Third World countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and with the stronger emphasis of Malaysia’s management practices to become more Islamic, would such hybridized concepts be then exported along with an equally hybridized discourse of developmentalism? Appaduari’s (1996) notion of disjunctures in the flow of ideas within the realm of ideoscape, using complexity and chaos theory a conceptual lens may perhaps be able to be used to predict what the ongoing outcome would be, as ideas continue to flow in circular into the next millenium.

Agenda for future research

Having provided concluding paragraphs as above, I now turn to the relevance of the question of circularity of transfer as agenda for future research. I have throughout this essay provided a non-judgmental perspective of the circularity of transfer of the TQM model so that this essay may serve its purpose as a descriptive-analytical expose drawing upon the issue of the genealogy of transfer and borrowing. Further agenda for research however should best not be limited to such a conceptual framework, particularly if one would choose Edward Said’s (1978) notion of politically-embedded discourse as a rallying point of analysis. The questions in the next paragraphs need to be framed. 

Can an Islamic TQM be another rationalizing agenda to create in Ritzer’s (1998) term, a “sneakerization” of a capitalist Weltanschauung? A postmodern reading of the question allures me to McMichael’s (1996) analysis of advanced capitalist formation which has integrated the world of nation-states, Islamic and all, into yet another advanced Center-periphery machinery of production. Is the Malaysianized or Islamized version American or Nipponized management model yet another palatable way to present post-Fordist thinking to those who think and speak in indigenous capitalist terms? In this age wherein language is power and information is commodity and currency, a postmodern/postcolonial approach to the study of such circularity of transfer and the value-neutrality of hybridization as such as the TQM model discussed, seem necessary.

To what extent is a model Islamic and to what extend is it cultural when one analyzes organizational structures erected in Islamic countries such as Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan—those which prides in its Islamic-ness—but yet still maintain domination and control regressive to the liberation of females and those of other ethnic groups? How much of the rationality, efficiency and calculability in the management practices used by some Islamic nation-states are used to build engines of mass destruction—all in the name of Islam? How can one maintain rationality and spirituality whilst at the same time sustain state-legitimated structural violence such as authoritarianism in governance? 

Another agenda for further research could also be in the manner transferred models of developmentalism are currently perceived in poverty-relegated Southeast Asia one year after its collapse triggered by the devaluation of the Thai baht. What dimension and degree of disenchantment towards Western-exported models of social, economic, and political development can we discern in the current call by some Asian leaders to search for a “New Bretton Woods”? Would contested models from the industrialized West still be transferred and borrowed by these nations although winds of change are blowing leaders off their throne—leaders who have been good indigenizors of concepts and who themselves have been well-paid global production managers of advanced capitalist states? These questions are among those worth exploring using postmodern research tools worth designing.


Appadurai, A. (1996). Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy. In A. Appadurai (Ed.) Modernity at large. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ashton, D., & Greene, F. (1996). Education, training, and the global economy. Brookfield, Vermont: Edmund Elgar Publishing Company.

Bourdieu, P. (1994). Structures, habitus, power: Basis for a theory of symbolic power. In N. B. Dirks, G. Eley, S. B. Ortner (Eds.) Culture/Power/History. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

McMichael, P. (1996). Development and social change: A global perspective. California: Pine Forge Press.

Ritzer, G. (1998). The Mcdonalization thesis. London: Sage Publications.

Said, E.W. (1978). Orientalism. New York : Vintage Books Edition.

Schmidt, W.H., Finnigan, J.P. (1993). TQM Manager: A practical guide for managing in a total quality organization. San Francisco: Josey Bass Publishers.

Steiner-Khamsi, G. (1997). Transferring education, displacing reforms. Comparative Education Review. in review.

Vavrek, G.M. (1992). An American leads the Japanese and the U.S. follows. In P. F. Fendt & G. M. Vavrek (Eds.), Quality improvement in continuing higher education and service organizations. Wales, U.K.: Edwin Mellen Press Ltd.

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DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.

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