Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia).
He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia."
Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill.
This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.
Post-Najib Unity Transition Administration M. Bakri Musa www.bakrimusa.com
the bravado, Najib Razak’s days as Prime Minister are numbered. Last
weekend’s massive Bersih 4 demonstrations are only the latest and most
public expressions of citizens’ disgust and contempt for him and his
I hope Najib is
spared the ignominious fate of many corrupt Third World leaders. The
visceral hatred for him not just as a leader but also a person is
palpable. The sentiment is worse for his obscenely ostentatious wife.
Judging by the extraordinarily tight security around him these days,
Najib too is aware of this.
If Najib were to suffer a Marcos, or worse, a Ngo Dinh Diem, that would
plunge Malaysia into an abyss; likewise if Najib were to execute an
Assad. Assad is still in power but I shudder to imagine the images of
his last days, as surely that would come. I saw enough gory details of
of Najib’s fate, prudence calls for Malaysia to be ready for a
post-Najib administration. Those arguing for patience have it wrong.
Nothing in the constitution precludes the removal of a sitting prime
minister between elections. It has been done.
If Najib’s successor were to be chosen in the manner of recent past,
meaning, by UMNO power brokers, that would only ensure another mediocre
pick. Najib is worse than Abdullah (who would have thought that
possible!); rest assured that Najib’s successor chosen thus would be
even worse. This Ahmad Zahid character, Najib’s current deputy, is fast
living up (or down) to that low expectation.
Mahathir has apologized for his role in picking Najib, and Abdullah
before that. It is not productive to continue blaming Mahathir; he
retired over a decade ago. Malaysia should be able to recover from his
blunders by now. At least the man recognizes his error and is trying to
rectify it. He succeeded in ridding us of Abdullah; let’s hope he would
be too with Najib.
is not enough to dump just Najib. His entire cabinet too has to go, plus
half a dozen top heads in the permanent establishment. To redress
Najib’s legacy of endemic corruption, I propose granting temporary
amnesty to corruptors who confess. To discourage future such acts, I
propose a permanent body to scrutinize all gifts and public contracts
awarded to the top 100 officials. They would also have to declare their
assets annually to this body.
Anything less would condemn Malaysia to “business as usual.” It cannot afford that.
Transition Prime Minister and Unity Cabinet
successor should be chosen through consensus by the parties now in
Parliament. That would be the only way to get a unity leader. That
individual would of course have to be ratified by Parliament. As UMNO
has the largest number of representatives, it is only right that the
Prime Minister should be a current UMNO MP. His cabinet however, should
comprise nominees of all parties.
The new Prime Minister and his ministers should commit to three
stipulations. One, they should not be candidates in the next general
elections; two, give up their party positions (if they have any) in the
interim; and three, agree to stay out of government for at least a year
immediately following their tenure.
Reduce the cabinet to about a dozen ministers, as with Tunku’s original
team back in 1955. The current bloated one is inefficient, designed
less to pick the best candidates more to bribe compliant and none too
bright supporters. Former Parliamentary Accounts Committee Chairman Nur
Juzlan tasked with investigating 1MDB, now a junior minister, is Exhibit
stipulation would ensure that ministers focus on their cabinet
responsibilities and not be sidelined with jockeying to be candidates in
the next election. Without this stricture those new ministers would
begin their next political campaign right away, mocking the unity theme
of the cabinet.
second – decoupling cabinet appointments from party positions – could
prove to be a worthy precedent for future administrations. The duties of
a minister are onerous enough without the added burden of party
obligations. This stipulation would also widen the talent pool beyond
Najib’s current ministers have to go with him. They have either
explicitly or implicitly by their silence endorsed Najib’s corrupt ways.
They do not deserve to lead the nation. Firing them would impress upon
new ministers that while they may serve at the pleasure of the Prime
Minister, their ultimate paymaster and thus clients are the citizens.
One standout candidate for Prime Minister is Tengku Razaleigh. He
commands instant respect at home and abroad. Untainted by the many
sordid UMNO scandals, he is also highly regarded by the opposition as
well as ordinary citizens. At age 78 we can believe him when he says
that he would not stand in the next election, as he informed Najib last
week. He is robust physically and mentally. No other candidate comes
close to Razaleigh.
reluctant leaders make the best ones, then the Tengku is the embodiment
of that principle. With his accomplishments he does not need yet
another accolade, especially now that the prime minister’s post has been
Fire Key Leaders in the Permanent Establishment
least-noted but very revealing aspect to the present 1MDB scandal is
the less-than-admirable to downright despicable performances of many
heads in the permanent establishment.
Bank Negara Governor, hitherto distinguished by her sterling
professional reputation, was reduced to saying that her duties were done
with the handing in of her report on 1MDB to the Attorney General. She
was not in the least interested on whether her findings would be acted
upon, using the Jamaican excuse, “It’s not my job, mon!”
She felt no compulsion to protect the integrity of her institution. She
also failed in her obligation to the public, her ultimate paymaster.
It gets worse. Chief Secretary Ali Hamsa, the top civil servant, announced the retroactive
retirement of Attorney-General Gani Patail while he (Gani) was in the
final stages of investigating Najib’s scandal. Not to be outdone,
Hamsa’s new appointee as AG, Apandi Ali, announced even before being
sworn in that Najib was cleared of any wrongdoing!
If you want to bodek
(suck up) at least do so in a credible way so as to spare yourself and
your master needless embarrassment. In case the point is missed, Apandi,
a retired judge, was a former state UMNO treasurer. A political hack,
the number one and two at the Anti Corruption Commission (MACC) chose to
be on elective medical leave in the midst of the crisis. To top that,
Inspector-General of the Police (IGP) Khalid Bakar made himself the
subject of international ridicule when his request to Interpol for the
arrest of the Sarawak Report editor was rebuffed. In an unusual
departure, Interpol asserted that its Red Alert is meant to nab
terrorists and dangerous criminals. The smack to the IGP’s face was
heard around the world.
The IGP tried to keep that rebuff secret. The first blunder was bad
enough, but a second one so soon! Sheer incompetence and lack of
At a minimum Chief Secretary Ali Hamsa, IGP Khalid Bakar, MACC Chief
Abu Kassim, and new Attorney-General Apandi Ali should be fired. They
should be prosecuted for obstruction of justice with respect to the 1MDB
are many capable Malaysians who could replace those four, and others.
However, with citizens now so deeply polarized, it is unlikely that any
local replacement could command the confidence and respect of the
populace. Thus the new administration should initiate a global search to
get the best talent without regard to nationality.
An important task for these new appointees would be to groom their
local successors, to impress upon them the importance of protecting and
enhancing the integrity of their institutions. They should not be
handmaidens to their political superiors. This is especially critical
now as our public institutions, even religious ones, are hopelessly
corrupt and politicized.
Consider that Najib was embarrassed enough to withdraw his previously
arranged address to an international conference on anti-corruption. The
urbane and sophisticated audience would laugh him off. Not so at local
mosques. There he was in his long white jubbah a la the Grand
Ayatollah, Najib leading a congregational prayer with the compliant
local media in full force with cameras on hand. Next the man would go
for umrah and announced that he had a vision that the RM2 billion “donation” was rezeki, and the donor a descendant of the Prophet!
Samuel Johnson had it off; religion, not patriotism, is the last refuge of scoundrels, at least Malay-Muslim ones.
Amnesty for Corruptors and Asset Declaration
is now endemic in Malaysia; it is the norm at all levels. The only
reason Najib’s RM 2 billion “donation” raised a raucous was the sheer
colossal amount (even in today’s devalued ringgit) and the utter
brazenness of the man.
It is hard to gauge the extent of or aggregate loss from corruption. Its
corrosive consequences are of course beyond quantification, from
collapsed buildings endangering their occupants to watered-down academic
standards depriving the young their rightful opportunities.
One suggestion would be to grant amnesty to encourage corruptors to
come forward. That would give some insight as to the extent of the
blight as well as its infinite variations. There is no limit to human
ingenuity in disguising corruption, from friendly “wagers” at golf games
to the funding of Hajj pilgrimages. Nothing is sacred to the corrupt.
Amnesty would also create a prisoner’s dilemma between the corrupting
parties that could potentially be exploited. If one side confesses and
the other does not, you now have the evidence to prosecute the other
To reduce future
opportunities for corruption, there should be a permanent body to
scrutinize all gifts and contracts given to the top 100 public officials
and their immediate families. This 100 would include the sultans and
governors, cabinet and chief ministers, top civil servants and heads of
major statutory bodies, as well as Federal Court judges. They would also
have to declare their assets annually to this body.
There are many excellent models of such bodies out there; there is no need to reinvent the wheel.
Meanwhile Bersih 4 and other protests against Najib must continue until
the man is out. However, dumping only Najib without the other needed
changes would only condemn Malaysia to business as usual. The nation can
ill afford that.
smooth assimilation of Malays into Islam was the result of both
“down-up” and “up-down” dynamics. The average Malay peasant in his or
her interactions with the ancient Muslim traders saw the value of this
new faith. This message then spread laterally among the other villagers
and later upwards to the nobility and ultimately the sultans. They too
saw the merit of this new religion and that acceptance trickled down to
the masses. The result was the quick transformation of Malay society.
Today in the retelling of the arrival of Islam to the Malay world,
there is not a dissenting voice. All agree that it was a positive
development, for the faith as well as for Malays. We also agree that our
culture adapted well to Islam.
Those sentiments have more to do with the human tendency to romanticize
the past, especially one perceived as being glorious, rather than a
true reflection of the reality. We spare ourselves from looking more
critically at our past for fear that we would discover something that
could blight that pristine image and sweet memory.
Yet in all human endeavors nothing is pure white or all black. The
noblest deeds often have a sliver of tarnish if we were meticulous and
fearless in our scrutiny. At the other extreme, even in the horror and
depravity of a Siberian prison camp one could still discern sparks of
compassion and humanity, as Dostoyevsky noted in his House of the Dead.
So it was with the coming of Islam to the Malay world. Those early
Muslims came not to proselytize, though that was a well-established
tradition with the faith, rather to trade. In that respect those Arab
and Indian Muslim traders were no different from the subsequent European
explorers who came for our spices.
natives were so enamored with the way those Muslim traders conducted
themselves – with honor, piety and honesty – that soon their ways rubbed
off on our ancestors and they too became Muslims. They, as a culture
and community, were free minded enough to recognize a better way and did
not hesitate to incorporate it as part of their own.
Our ancestors were enthusiastic converts. They willingly absorbed this
new faith based on its evident merit, and did so with an open mind. They
accepted its teachings with complete trust.
They could not however, claim to be diligent learners. If they were,
they would have discovered a much bigger and richer dimension to Islam
beyond the spiritual and metaphysical. After all this great faith had
emancipated the ancient Bedouins and caused them to give up the more
gruesome aspects of their culture like female infanticide and the
utterly destructive “eye for an eye” sense of justice.
Our forefathers would have also discovered the rich and varied
intellectual traditions of this great faith, from the rationalist
Mutazilites to the mystical Sufis. Islam, far from being a rigid and
uncompromising faith, is malleable and adaptive, which explained its
remarkable vibrancy and tolerance as demonstrated in such disparate
places as South Asia and Iberian Europe.
Those Arabs and Indians came to the Malay world in search of trade.
Spreading their faith was secondary, if at all, and only in so far as it
would facilitate their trading. The primary pursuit of all traders was
their customers’ satisfaction, not salvation. Traders want their
customers to return. Whether they would end up in heaven or hell is of
little interest to those traders.
Our ancestors missed this important but subtle point. They were so
obsessed with their fate in the Hereafter that they missed learning the
equally important but worldly trading activities of those earlier Arabs
and Indians. Our forefathers forgot or failed to discern the elementary
Islamic principle that our religious and worldly obligations were (still
are) related if not the same. Earning a living, as with trading, and
serving the needs of your fellow human beings, also a function of
trading, are but part and parcel of ibadah (worshiping).
Serve your fellow man and you serve God, exhorted our Prophet Mohammad
(May Allah be pleased with him). That's what trading does. The prophet
was himself a trader; he explicitly permitted and indeed encouraged
trading even during the Hajj to reinforce the point that earning a
living and worshiping Allah are but two sides of the same coin. Both are
far from being incompatible.
Thus while our ancestors learned much about Islam as a theology, they
failed to acquire the skills of trading from those Muslim traders. Then
consider the books that were translated. They were heavy on legends and
the spiritual aspects of Islam but precious few on trade, financing, and
the setting up of enterprises. Even on the theological aspects of
Islam, our ancestors restricted themselves to learning only a very
narrow interpretation of a particular fiqh (school of thought).
Our ancestors were not at all curious of the vast richness of the
intellectual heritage of Islam. Had they been, our ancestors would have
learned that those ancient Muslim luminaries beginning with Al Kindi and
on to Ibn Khaldun a few centuries later also wrote on such worldly
topics as astronomy, physics, medicine and sociology. To them, knowledge
was all encompassing, with no artificial differentiation between the
spiritual and secular, or worldly and "other-worldly."
Our sultans too were not diligent learners. Otherwise they would have
discovered that the Caliphs of the Abbasid dynasty, for example, had
their Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) where they gathered the leading
scholars and learn from them. Instead, our sultans of yore (and even
today) were content to be in the company of their gundek (concubines).
Malay society did benefit in one significant area. As Syed Naguib
al-Attas noted, “… [T]he most important single cultural phenomenon
directly caused by the influence of Islamic culture … was the spread and
development of Malay language as a vehicle not only for epic, romantic
and historical literature, but even more so for philosophical
discourse.” This was one of the paramount factors that displaced the
hegemony of Java in the region, Al Attas concluded.
With the adoption of the Arabic jawi
script, Malay culture transited from the oral to the written tradition.
Whenever that happens to a society or culture, it is a significant
advancement. We are indebted to those ancient Muslims for that precious
This unwillingness of our ancestors to learn about Islam beyond the
theological carried a heavy price. We did not benefit as greatly as we
should have from this encounter with Islam.
ancestors been more encompassing in exploring the vastness of the
intellectual and other traditions of the Arabs and of Islam, as those
folks in Iberia did, and studied the varied richness of this new faith,
its tradition of hosting a wide spectrum of opinions and its great
scholars, we could have triggered our own renaissance, our own Nusantara
(Malay Archipelago) Andalusia as it were, in the fine tradition of the
We could have then, like those ancient
Arabs who learned prodigiously from the Greeks, do likewise with the
Arabs. Those early Arabs (unlike their modern counterparts) had no
hesitation in translating Greek works and learning from Greek
philosophers, even avowedly atheistic ones.
Instead our ancestors were content with being ardent but passive
followers rather than engaged and active contributors. Had they done
more of the latter, there would be no limits to the height of our
achievement while at the same time enriching this great faith. Instead
they were satisfied with being merely takers and followers; they did not
contribute to nor enrich the faith.
Medieval Europe discovered Islam through Andalusia only a few centuries
before the faith landed in the Malay world. Unlike Malays who were
interested only in the spiritual aspects of the faith and perhaps some
accompanying philosophy and literature, the Europeans were interested in
everything the ancient Iberian Muslims had to offer, especially their
sciences and mathematics. And those early Muslims had much to offer in
The subsequent European Renaissance and the continent’s exit from its
medieval culture owed much to the contributions of those early Muslims.
Yes, the Europeans also translated the Koran and the various religious
treatises of ancient Muslim scholars, but unlike those in the sciences,
mathematics and philosophy, they were done less for learning but more
for demonstrating the “superiority” of Christianity and to “protect” the
flock from an alien faith. Thus the ensuing translations were clearly
jaundiced, presumably to spare the Europeans from yet another
Imagine the intellectual emancipation of Malay society had our
ancestors been more diligent in learning from those ancient Arabs the
full breadth of the intellectual endeavors of Islam beyond merely the
religious, and translated the great mathematical and scientific texts of
the ancient Arabs as those Middle Ages Europeans did! Our society
could have gone on to make our own unique contributions and trigger our
own Nusantara Renaissance.
Even to this day while we have an abundance of Malay translations of
religious texts and Arabic legends, no one has yet seen fit to translate
such seminal tomes as Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimmah (An Introduction [to the study of History]), Ibn Rashid’s Kulliyat (Generalities [of medicine]), or al-Khwarizmi’s treatise on Algebra.
While Middle Age Europe eagerly learned from Andalusia, the Europeans
did not become Muslims. Only a few centuries later, Malays became Muslim
through their encounter with those Muslim traders but we did not learn
much from them. This irony, as yet unexamined, baffles me.
It is this myopic take on Islam that prevents Malays from fully
benefiting from this great faith. Like monkeys, we are content only with
imitating, and then only the superficialities of the faith and the
trappings of Arab culture while missing the core or essence. That was
true then and it is still true today.
Next: European Intrusion Into The Malay World
This essay is adapted from the author's latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, 2013.
The arrival of Islam was “the most momentous event in the history of the Malay archipelago,” to quote Syed Naquib al-Attas. It came not through the point of the sword but peacefully through trade. Islam did not land in a cultural and religious vacuum as Malays were already steeped in Hindu and animist traditions. Nor did the Arabs come to emancipate our ancestors; there was no messianic zeal or even an inclination to engage in their salvation.
Those Muslims came only to trade; there was no intention to dominate or colonize. Their Islamic faith and the prevailing Malay culture interacted through gradual and mutual accommodation. The result was that “the local genius of the people shone through” in the melding of the two, to quote Farish Noor, respected scholar and frequent commentator on Malaysian affairs.
This was vividly illustrated with my matriarchal Adat Perpateh. It coexisted peacefully with traditional male-dominated Islam, demonstrating a brilliant and workable synthesis of the two. Malays did not repudiate our traditional ways to become Muslims, and Islam was not adulterated to accommodate Malay culture. Both were remarkably malleable to and adaptive of each other.
This accommodative attitude is best captured by the Minangkabau wisdom, Adat menurun, syarak mendaki (‘custom descended, religion ascended’), in reference to the belief that the Minangkabau descended from the highlands, the heartland of the culture, to meet Islam as it ascended from the coast. Both Islam and Malay were elevated as a consequence of the melding.
Expressions like Adat basandi syarak, syarak basandi kitabullah (Customs based on shari’a; shari’a on Koran), and the more practical, Syarak mengato, adat memakai (Sharia prescribes, adat subscribes) attest to this grand accommodation. The sociologist Taufik Abdullah expressed it best, “The genius of Minangkabau is to synthesize contradictions harmoniously.” There were certainly contradictions real as well as imagined between Islam and traditional Malay culture, but our ancestors took them in stride and with composure.
It is said that a Minangkabau baby is fed white rice and red chili early so it could learn at a very young age to tolerate opposites. Later we would go beyond mere tolerating to actually relishing contradictions. Thus as adults we could not do without our rice and sambal (chili paste).
Of course all these happened several centuries ago, long before the advent of “purist” Islamists. Today these purists would condemn any accommodation of the faith as bida’a (adulteration). Little wonder that Malays of that religious persuasion are today busy rewriting history to obliterate our legitimate pre-Islamic existence. They would like us to believe that prior to the arrival of Islam, Malays were cultureless and devoid of any spiritual values, and that our history began only with the arrival of Islam.
Thus instead of learning and benefiting from the wisdom and ingenuity of our ancestors in synthesizing contradictions harmoniously, these later-day Islamists are obsessed with “purifying” and "cleansing" our faith of what they deem to be “un-Islamic” and “primitive” elements.
These purists obviously have not learned anything from our recent history. They should remember that the last time this “cleansing” effort took place it triggered the Padri War from 1821-37 in West Sumatra. That conflict succeeded only in further tightening of Dutch colonial rule.
Today there is little risk that the Malay world would ever be colonized again, our leaders’ fear of neo-colonization notwithstanding. Colonialism is no longer cool, except in such odd places like Chechnya and Tibet. However there is a fate far worse than being colonized, and that is being left behind by a rapidly modernizing world.
This preoccupation with Islamic “cleansing” distracts Malays, especially the idealistic younger set looking for a cause and meaning to their life, from making their rightful contributions to society. It is far too easy for their religious zeal to degenerate into something sinister, as with futile “jihads” against phantom enemies of Islam.
A notorious and tragic example was the “Bali bomber,” Dr. Azahari Husin. Smart enough to be the top student at Malay College, Kuala Kangsar, he was later selected to pursue his engineering degree in Australia and subsequently, doctoral work in Britain.
By all accounts he was a competent academic and an inspiring teacher. He could have made a significant contribution by training future engineers, quite apart from being a much-needed role model especially for young Malays. Somewhere along the line he acquired a zeal for “purifying” the faith. Instead of making a meaningful contribution, he ended up leaving behind a trail of death and destruction. A needless tragedy, for him, his family, and society!
At the community level, this increased emphasis in religion has resulted in, among other things, our national schools taking on all the trappings of a religious institution. As a result non-Muslims are abandoning the system in droves making these schools all the more insular. Malays too are abandoning the system but for the very opposite reason – these schools are deemed not religious enough! As a consequence religious schools now mushroom all over the country.
Unlike religious schools in America, those in Malaysia are heavy into religion, paying lip service to such important but deemed “secular subjects” as science and mathematics. Then we wonder why local companies cannot get enough qualified Malay applicants.
This emphasis on religion has resulted in the massive expansion of the bureaucracy associated with Islam just to employ these otherwise unemployable Malay graduates. This further encourages Malays to enroll in religious schools, feeding this non-productive cycle. Today thousands of Malay talents are diverted not in producing something for the economy but in the destructive pursuit of keeping citizens along the “straight and narrow path,” as these zealots see it.
If this were to continue, we could expect a modern version of the Padri War, with the Malay community in conflict with each other and be left behind. This time there would be no outside force coming to mediate or rescue us; we would be left destroying each other while the world bypassed us.
The need for Malays and Muslims today is not to further divide us by heaping useless labels as liberal or conservative Muslims, or needlessly dividing us into tudung-clad versus the well-coiffured. As so eloquently stated in the Koran, true piety lies not in turning your face to the east or west (as in praying) rather one who spends his substance on his kin, the orphans, the needy, and the wayfarer.
In order to do that we first must have the substance, that is, be productive. This obsession with the external manifestations of our faith distracts us from being so and thus contributing to the betterment of our society.
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
true measure of a culture is how well it prepares its members to sudden
changes and challenges, especially when those are unanticipated or
imposed from the outside. That different societies react very
differently is obvious.
Consider the March 2011 tsunami
that demolished the coastal areas of Northern Japan. Thousands were
killed and billions worth of properties damaged, with whole villages and
families wiped out. Compare the reactions of the Japanese to that
tragedy of August 2005 when Katrina hurricane devastated the southern
coast of United States.
The differences in reactions
could not be more profound. Today only a few years after the tragedy,
Northern Japan is almost fully recovered. In Louisiana they are still
entangled in massive lawsuits, and the finger pointing has not yet
stopped. Both Japan and America are developed societies, so we cannot
account the difference to socioeconomic status, only to culture.
Then there was the Southeast Asian tsunami of Christmas 2004 that
devastated western Sumatra and elsewhere. In terms of human toll, that
tragedy was a universe beyond Katrina.
relief workers involved in both tragedies observed how remarkably
quickly those Indonesians resumed their "normal" routine. When hundreds
of thousands of your countrymen had perished and whole towns and
villages vanished, swept into the deep blue Indian Ocean, normalcy is
hard to fathom. "Normal" is not quite the appropriate term. Nonetheless
only a few months after the tragedy, school children were resuming their
classes and singing their national anthem as they gathered underneath
the shade of the lone surviving angsana tree.
expect that to happen in America, a nation with vastly greater resources
and much superior manpower and administrative machinery at its
disposal, not Indonesia. Yes, America's industrial might was able to
produce hundreds of portable homes and classrooms on short order, alas
they were left sitting on empty lots to this day. The displaced
residents are still unable to return home.
Again, only culture can explain the difference in the two reactions.
The Southeast Asian tsunami was also instrumental in ending the
generations-long Aceh civil war. The iconic image of the tsunami
devastation was the lone mosque that stood serenely in a sea of
destruction. The sophisticated would attribute the catastrophe to shifts
in ancient tectonic plates in the deep ocean floor, but to the
science-illiterate Indonesians it was Allah sending them a powerful
message. The Aceh civil war ended soon after.
the supreme value of a culture; to help us react in positive ways to
events that are beyond our control. That is the only true measure of a
Today in discussions on the "Malay problem,"
specifically the lack of economic development, much is made of the
supposed deficiencies of our culture. To me that is not a valid measure
of the value of a culture. America is the most economically and socially
developed society on Earth, yet it could not handle the Katrina
tragedy. We have to stop blaming culture as the explanation for
everything especially when we are having glaring deficits elsewhere, as
with our corrupt and incompetent leaders.
there are just too many and obvious examples to debunk such a simplistic
"explanation" as culture. Consider the Koreans. Those in North Korea
share the same culture (including religion and language) as their
brethren in the South. Today those two societies and countries could not
be more different not only socio-economically and but also in mindset
and many other ways.
Incidentally, the Koreans would
serve as a ready example to debunk those who would resort to blaming our
"genes" or biology to explain our backwardness, the pet "explanation"
offered by the likes of Mahathir.
Then there is the
current fascination and exaltation of Confucian ethics and system of
values to "explain" the rapid rise of East Asia, first with Japan and
later South Korea. What is conveniently forgotten is that this same
culture was responsible for the monumental tragedies on the Chinese
mainland during much of the 20th Century, and the militaristic rise of
Japan and the consequent catastrophe inflicted on much of Asia during
World War II.
So quit blaming culture to "explain"
Malay backwardness. As a mental exercise, imagine if Malay leaders
(specifically those in UMNO as they have been in charge for over half a
century) are not corrupt, and all the funds and resources that they have
hogged unto themselves had been spent on improving our lot as with
building better schools and having properly trained teachers and
professors, we would be much better off today. We would also be spared
those sordid financial scandals, from the Bank Bumiputra debacle of yore
to the current 1MDB mess.
Consider the opportunity cost of the current RM2 billion "donation" to
Prime Minister Najib Razak. Had he spent that money to endow a
university in honor of his late father in the fashion of the
industrialist James Buchanan Duke (Duke University), imagine the good
that would do to Malaysia. For one, the Razak name would forever be held
in high esteem for not only being an exemplary leader of the country
but also for producing a son with such farsightedness and philanthropy.
For another, Najib would have been spared the current humiliation of
just another corrupt Third World leader who could be bought with a mere
billion or two in devalued Malaysian ringgit.
At another level, if only Malaysian leaders had been a wee bit
competent in addition to being honest, there would be no limit to the
This week, Najib and his wife were guests at Singapore's 50th
anniversary. When Tun Razak and the senior Lee were Prime Ministers of
their respective nations, the ringgit and Singapore dollar were on par
in value. Today with their sons in charge, the ringgit has fallen to a
third of the Singapore dollar, and continues to fall.
The devaluation of the ringgit is at least quantifiable, not so the devaluation of the nation's maruah( respect).
Getting honest and competent leaders has nothing to do with culture.
Nor are you born corrupt or incompetent; rather you become one.
There is yet another reason to be weary of those who resort to blaming
culture to "explain" everything about a society. Strip off the sophistry
and the underlying racism is exposed in all its ugliness.
In the following few chapters I will recap the three defining moments
in Malay culture: the arrival of Islam upon our shores, the subsequent
series of European intrusions into our world, and the path we had chosen
towards independence. I will examine how our culture had prepared us
for those tumultuous changes. As is apparent we are still here, and that
says something about the value and endurance of our culture. In the
final analysis that is what counts; all else are but footnotes.
There are critical and valuable lessons to be learned from those
transformational experiences that are applicable to our current
Adapted from the author's latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
Next Excerpt: Arrival of Islam as a Momentous Event in Malay Culture
Labu and Labi, the two bumbling idiots in P. Ramlee’s 1962 comedy movie of the
have a political version of that duo. With the latest cabinet reshuffle, Labi
is gone. Next should be Labu, aka
Najib Razak. The leadership of Malaysia is too important to be entrusted to
In a twist
of irony, this latest exercise eases the process. By firing his deputy, Najib
has set an important precedent – decoupling cabinet positions from party
leadership. It has been the tradition, and only that as it is unsupported by
the constitution, that leaders of the ruling party should also lead the
someone other than the party’s deputy leader be the Deputy Prime Minister, that
sets the stage whereby the Prime Minister too could be someone other than the
party’s President. That is the only silver lining to this latest reshuffle.
That excepted, Najib’s new cabinet remains a yawner. The elusive “wow” factor
still eludes him.
his new ministers Najib is taken in by the glint of pebbles, confusing that for
the sparkle of diamonds, or in kampong expression, pasir berkilau disangkakan intan. No surprise there as Najib
himself is a pebble. He values loyalty over smarts, pebbles over diamonds.
Expect Malaysia to be continually grinded down.
minister gushed that she knew of her appointment through the radio! Obviously
Najib had not vetted her. Even a housewife is more careful in picking her kangkung.
appointees were so eager that they were oblivious of the darkening clouds
hovering over their leader, desperate as they are for personal advancement. May
they be struck by the same lightning and be drenched in the downpour. Spare
Malaysia their personal ethics and pebble-stone quality.
“promoting” four members of the parliamentary committee investigating 1MDB,
Najib tried to sidetrack and emasculate that committee. I would have thought
that completing a crucial national investigation would be the committee’s
highest priority and patriotic mission, as its chairman had earlier professed
and promised. As I said, these characters are pebbles, not diamonds.
thinks that he would stymie the investigation, he is mistaken. Already the
deputy chairman has vowed to continue. Now the committee has more opposition
members, including its vice-chairman. Najib may rue his “brilliance!”
Muhyiddin No Hero
Muhyiddin’s protestation over 1MDB was neither forceful nor
strategic in content, setting, or timing, despite the hullabaloo it triggered.
His mild and belated attempt at being a Hang Jebat after over six years as a
compliant sidekick a la Hang Tuah was
awkward. It was, to borrow his phrase, “lebih
daripada meluat” (beyond nauseating).
because it was self-serving. Consider the content. “I told him [Najib] to let
go of his post in 1MDB, but he didn’t want to listen!” protested poor
Muhyiddin. Imagine had he said, “I could not get an unequivocal denial from the
Prime Minister! On the contrary he admitted to having that account!”
Muhyiddin’s retelling, he is “the first minister to take a stand on 1MDB.” He
bragged about being vocal in cabinet and UMNO Supreme Council meetings. Then he
complained that he and his cabinet and Supreme Council members had been kept in
have it both ways. A cabinet as well as Supreme Council colleague rebuked
Muhyiddin, noting that he had chaired some of those meetings.
too was inappropriate. Muhyiddin should have picked a more influential audience
as in a formal press conference preferably with foreign correspondents present,
not his party’s divisional meeting. He could have then answered the inevitable
As for the
timing, imagine if Muhyiddin had also submitted his resignation. His stock
would have soared. By letting himself to be sacked, Muhyiddin’s subsequent
ranting was seen more as the whining of an ex-wife about her former husband.
Worse, it made Najib look strong. Now that
took some doing!
did better in his later press conference. Although it was somewhat chaotic,
nonetheless he exuded great confidence, a portrait not of a man who had been
fired rather one who had had a great burden lifted off his broad shoulders. One
wonders what is that great burden!
have appeared more in command had he dispensed with the prop of his wife beside
him and the throngs of hangers-on behind. You do not have to major in theater
to appreciate these subtleties of effective stage presentation.
Muhyiddin’s account, it was Najib who was weak. Muhyiddin had to prod Najib as
he could not utter the words to fire Muhyiddin to his face. Najib merely
nodded. There was no “you are fired” Donald Trump-style. If Najib could not
handle his deputy one-on-one, I wonder how he would fare with world leaders.
should have given his press conference first instead of that speech at the
divisional meeting. The latter was more a sly maneuver to “suck up” to
was instrumental in Najib and Abdullah becoming Prime Ministers. Muhyiddin was
trying to ingratiate himself to Mahathir in the hope of becoming his third dud
should not let that happen. Yes, Mahathir successfully undid his first mistake
and is now desperate to undo his second, with no sign of success in sight. If
Mahathir again prevails, Malaysians should be grateful but not let him have
this third pick. Malaysia has had enough of his mistakes.
is no hero. This is the Minister of Education who claimed that our schools and
universities are the best. He could not be more wrong if he thinks the current
outpouring of support he gets in the social media is an endorsement of his
performance. Those are more expressions of citizens’ disgust with Najib, a variation
of the enemy-of-your-enemy-is-my-friend dynamics.
Getting Labu Out
With Labi out, getting rid of Labu should now be easier.
With 1MDB short of cash, bribing and influencing potential rebellious
politicians would be that much more difficult. Nonetheless there are still
other tools of persuasion, as Najib demonstrated with his latest cabinet
like cash, are finite. There are just not enough cabinet slots or lucrative GLC
directorships to accommodate all UMNO MPs and the many more avaricious local
warlords, not counting those MPs from Barisan’s other component parties. Those
from Sarawak and Sabah are “fixed deposits” only if their “inducements” keep
is from Johore, where UMNO began. Without inducements it would be difficult for
him to keep his supporters there and elsewhere in tow. He is also no Tenkgu
Razaleigh or Anwar Ibrahim. The chance of another Semangat 46 or Keadilan
emerging to challenge UMNO and Najib is slim.
firing, cabinet reshuffle, “promotions” of parliamentary investigating
committee members, “retirement” of Attorney-General Gani Patail, and the
spectacular arrests of supposed “leakers” are all deliberate distractions.
There would be no “leakers” had no crime been committed. They are arresting the
good guys while the bad ones are running free.
question remains. Did Najib Razak siphon funds into his personal account?
failed in their attempts at denials, Najib’s pebble boys and girls are
desperate for novel spins, the latest being “political donations” and “trust
accounts.” I shudder to think that foreigners are buying our elections. What
would these pebble-brains think of next? Najib had a royal flush in Vegas?
these new distractions. The greatest challenge remains to get the truth on 1MDB
out and the culprits brought to justice. That should be the duty and priority,
ahead of personal interests and loyalty to individuals or party.
The Special Task Force and Parliamentary Committee
investigating 1MDB (Najib Administration’s business entity) are missing the
crux of the matter. They are distracted by and consumed with extraneous and
irrelevant issues, either through incompetence or on purpose, as being directed
to do so.
consequence is that what was initially a problem of corporate cash-flow squeeze
has now degenerated into a full-blown scandal engulfing not only Najib’s leadership
but also the national governance. The only redeeming feature is that for once a
national crisis does not parallel the country’s volatile racial divide, despite
attempts by many to make it so.
ink has been expended on that tattooed Swiss national now in a Thai jail, the
suspension of The Edge, the
threatened lawsuit against the Wall
Street Journal (WSJ), and the blocking of the Sarawak Report website. These
are but distracting sideshows. Even veteran and hard-nosed observers and
commentators are taken in by these distractions.
and very simple issue is this:Did
Prime Minister Najib divert funds from 1MDB to his private account as alleged
by WSJ and others?
The issue is simple because it
requires only a brief “Yes” or “No” response. If the answer is “Yes,” then all
else pales in comparison.
If the answer is “No,” then we
could proceed to such secondary issues as how much debt 1MDB has incurred, the
extent of the government’s exposure, and whether the company could service its
loans or even generate any revenue, as well as the related question of who
leaked confidential bank and other sensitive financial information.
whether pro or anti Najib, should be asking him to answer that simple central
question whether public funds were diverted to Najib’s account. That is the
Malaysian Nixonian equivalent of “What did the president know and when did he
know it?” of the infamous Watergate scandal of the 1970s.
that do not confront this central issue serve only to distract matters.
Likewise the commentaries; they succeed only in exposing the biases and
political leanings of their writers. We all can be spared of that, as well as
the obvious sucking-up gestures by Najib’s flatterers.
chooses to remain silent, then the parliamentary committee and special task
force must focus their investigations to answering that basic question. They do
not need the cooperation of the Monetary Authority of Singapore to do that. Nor
do they have to travel to Thailand and interview that tattooed character, or
subpoena that moon-faced chubby fellow who is so taken in with Paris Hilton.
low-level employees like the company dispatcher would only divert resources and
distract the staff. Instead there should be laser-like focus on ascertaining
the central truth. All other matters as who leaked the incriminating
information are secondary.
allegation of illegal diversion of public funds is made not by some kucing kurap anti-government blogger or
a disgruntled UMNO operative deprived of his lucrative government contracts but
by WSJ. The only way to rebut the damning allegation is to show that the
documents laid out were false by producing your own evidence to the contrary.
sue the publication. When the Financial
Times alleged impropriety on the part of Tengku Razaleigh regarding the
Bank Bumiputra fiasco of yore, he sued. And won; the rare occasion when that
influential publication was humbled!
were to sue WSJ, the ensuing depositions would uncover the truth. Lawsuits
however, are expensive and protracted. All these hullabaloos would go away and
confidence restored fast if Najib were to answer with a simple “No” to
the central question, and if his answer were indeed the truth and could
be substantiated as such. Then he can sue WSJ and everyone else.
Razaleigh called upon those Malaysians who know the truth on this matter to
come forward. There are only a few who are so privileged. They owe it to their
fellow citizens to do so. As he so wisely put it, “Not telling the truth is not
however should not be held hostage to their honesty and integrity, or lack of
either. We all must do our part to make sure that the truth be exposed.
heartened by the reactions of our corporate leaders. Nazir Razak and Tony
Fernandes, both widely admired and highly accomplished, have condemned the
suspension of The Edge. They have
done more; they praised the paper!
I applaud Nazir for another reason.
What he did was another not-so-subtle rebuke to his oldest brother. He did it
earlier as when he and his other brothers (minus Najib of course) reminded
everyone that their father died leaving only a modest estate. In our culture,
Nazir’s action took great courage. He did it in the finest Jebat tradition of
fidelity to principle and country, over kin and leaders.
others to do likewise. The Bar Council has taken an exemplary lead; likewise
the Raja Muda of Johore and a former Mufti of Perlis. When exposing a crime is
treated as a crime, the former Mufti reminded us, then we are ruled by
criminals. The young prince upbraided politicians who are more loyal to their
party than their fellow citizens.
scandal threatens to not only bring down Najib but also damage Malaysia’s
credibility, much like Nixon’s Watergate was to him and to America. It took the
courage of Nixon’s closest allies in his own Republican Party to convince him
to do the honorable thing. As a result, America was spared an unnecessary
crisis, and a generous nation later forgave Nixon. With that, his monumental
legacies, as with his engagement with China, remain intact.
not have any positive legacy despite his over six years as Prime Minister,
longer than Nixon was as President. Nonetheless Najib could still save his skin
if he were to do the honorable thing – tell the truth.
If he does
not, then it is up to those closest to him to do the honorable thing – tell him
the truth. The chance of that happening however, is remote as UMNO is bereft of
courageous individuals who could see beyond their party (and its lucrative
patronage) and tell it straight to Najib’s face.
Prime Minister Muhyyiddin’s belated protest is too little, too late. It is also
self-serving. Now if he were to resign in protest, that would mean
something. Meanwhile as a member of Najib’s cabinet, he and the other ministers
are collectively responsible and should be held jointly accountable.
person who could force Najib would be Barisan’s Sarawak leaders, in particular
Chief Minister Adenan Satem. His support is critical to Najib. Thus far Adenan
is satisfied with squeezing the maximum out of Najib in his hour of crisis to
benefit Sarawak. In the long term however, Adenan should remember that Sarawak,
like the rest of the country, would progress only if the central government is
competent and honest. An inept, corrupt and distracted central government would
be detrimental to all, Sarawak included.
It is time
for Najib to do or made to do a Nixon. If Najib were to do it voluntarily then
he could control the timing and to some extent, subsequent developments.
Specifically he could choose his successor. Nothing in the constitution
mandates that his current Deputy be the one.
If he were to pick Tengku
Razaleigh, a man of proven leadership and impeccable integrity, not only would
that meet widespread approval including within Parliament, he would have
secured for himself a significant legacy. He would also better his nemesis, Tun
Mahathir, in one respect. The Tun chose two duds as his successors and in the
process wasted a precious decade for Malaysia.
personal fate does not interest me. He could suffer a Marcos for all I care,
but if Malaysia were to degenerate into another Philippines because of Najib,
then those who remain silent or don’t take a stand now must bear some
responsibility. How would they answer their grandchildren’s lament?
bless those many brave and righteous Malaysians who have done and continue to
do their part, and at great risks. I salute them! We must remain focused on the
central issue:Did Najib embezzle those
Thoughts At The End of Ramadan - On Being A Muslim
Thoughts At The End
of Ramadan – On Being A Muslim
M. Bakri Musa
Muslim is one who subscribes to the five pillars of our faith – attests to the
oneness of Allah and Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., as His Last Messenger (shahadah);
prays five times a day; fasts during Ramadan; gives zakat; and conditions
permitting, undertakes the Hajj.
Significant for its absence is any
explicit reference to the Koran, the complete and final guide from God “for all
mankind, at all times, and till the end of time.”
The essence of the Koran is Al-amr
bi 'l-ma’ruf wa 'n-nahy ani 'l-munkar. It is referred to many
times in the text. The approximate translation is, “Command good and forbid
evil;” or in Malay, “Biasakan yang baik, jauhi yang jahat.” Succinct and
elegant in both languages as it is in the original classical Arabic!
As this central message is not one of the five pillars of our
faith, no surprise then that it is frequently missed by the masses. It is also
often lost in the thick tomes of religious scholars, erudite sermons of
bedecked ulamas, and frenzied jingoisms of zealous jihadists.
Enlightened scholars of yore had suggested that the Koran’s
essence be the sixth pillar, after and presumably below Hajj. That did not gain
As my Imam Ilyas reminded us in his Eid khutbah last
Friday, those five pillars of Islam demand the least from us. They are the
easiest undertakings. Shahadah could be executed in a single breath even
for those unfamiliar with the Arabic tongue, while the daily prayers consume a
few minutes longer. For those who consider the month-long Ramadan a challenge,
consider that millions do without their meals every day, and with no end in
sight. As for zakat and Hajj, both have finite and quantifiable costs.
The greatest challenge for Muslims then is not those five
imperatives rather to “command good and forbid evil.” That would demand
the most from us. As such, it should be priority number one. For even if you
were to diligently perform all those five traditional duties, but if you do not
do good and refrain from evil, then all would be for naught.
There is no point in donating zakat if your wealth is
acquired through corruption. Whatever religious “brownie points” you would
garner from that seemingly generous gesture could not begin to compensate for
the loss to the family whose child had died because the money meant for the
local hospital had been siphoned into your pocket. Likewise, you mock the
sanctity of the Hajj if on returning you resume condemning your fellow
believers even before the cough from your desert-induced irritated throat had
not yet cleared up.
A saying attributed to our prophet has it that a prostitute
was admitted to Heaven because she once saved a dog dying of thirst by bringing
it a bowl of water. Performing the rituals of the five pillars would not be a
regular routine for someone like her. Yet an All-Forgiving and Generous Allah
rewarded her for that single good deed.
If that simple act of kindness is so esteemed, imagine how
much more generous Allah would be to a veterinarian! Yet many were outraged
when Muslim veterinary students were handling their ‘patient’ pigs and dogs.
Philosophers through the ages, Muslims and non-Muslims,
atheists and believers, have pondered the meaning of good and evil. Believers
have also wrestled with the added issues of God’s will and individual
Al-Asha’ari posed this theological dilemma. Imagine a child
and an adult in Heaven. The child asked God why the man was given that
privilege. The reply was that he had done much good in his lifetime. (Note
again the emphasis on doing good!) The child then asked why God had taken him
so soon thus preventing him from doing good later in his life. To which the
reply was that God knew that the child would become a sinner and thus spared
him the terrible fate. Thereupon cries arose from those condemned, “Oh Lord!
Why didn’t you take us before we became sinners?”
While such ponderings make for vigorous class discussions, at
the practical level the issue of good versus evil is clear and not at all
complicated. Killing, stealing and cheating are all evil; improving the lot of
your people, making sure that they have potable water, adequate shelter, good
schools and competent healthcare, is good. Putting public funds into your bank
account is evil. No equivocation there. Yet many go through contortions to make
evil appear good. That in itself is evil.
Jonathan A C Brown in his book Misquoting Muhammad
relates an episode when the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar was asked by the country’s
powerful ruler about passages in the Koran and hadith to make his rule
“Islamic.” Bring justice and prosperity to your people, the Grand Mufti
replied, and I will find the appropriate verses to sanctify your policies as
Yes, bring justice, improve citizens’ lot, obey the rule of
law and respect citizens’ rights, those are the proven paths to an Islamic
state; not grandiose mosques, bloated religious departments, or Azzan blasting
on your radios.
As to whether going against a leader who is corrupt and
abuses his power is good or evil, ponder the last line of Caliph Abu Bakar’s
immortal inaugural speech. “Obey me so long as I obey Allah and His Messenger.
And if I do not, then I have no right to your obedience.” (Approximate
Do good not only to others but also equally important, to
ourselves. That means nurturing and being generous to ourselves, while
distancing from those who would harm and abuse us.
“Others” refers both to the living as well as physical world
around us. We can readily comprehend about being good to our fellow humans or
other living creatures, but less appreciated is that we must also be good to
our physical world. We are but trustees (vice-regents) of this universe, says
Illegal logging is evil not only because it is stealing from the
people but also because the activity degrades the environment, causing erosion,
silting of rivers, and consequent flooding. You may accrue untold riches from
illegal logging and be generous in your zakat but those do not compensate for
the miseries you caused fishermen whose fishing grounds are destroyed or
families made homeless from the resulting floods.
I prefer my own Malay translation of the golden rule.Its
rhythmic alliteration aside, it is soft and subtle yet no less powerful, in
tune with our culture. Biasakan yang baik, or make doing good your habit
or norm. Meaning, not because you are commanded to do so, rather it’s in your
nature or character.
Likewise with jauhi yang jahat, or distancing
ourselves from evil. We may not always be able to forbid evil, or doing so
would impose considerable risks, but we all can move away from evil.
Biasakan yang baik; jauhi yang jahat is truly a
message for all mankind, at all times, and till the end of time. Joyous Hari
Raya is an appropriate occasion to be reminded of this.