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.
Zaid Ibrahim’s Pristine Jihad and Purest Dakwah M. Bakri Musa www.bakrimusa.com
[Foreword to Zaid Ibrahim's latest book, Assalamualaikum. Observations on the Islamization of Malaysia, published by ZI Publications and launched on November 20, 2015 by former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir.]
Muslims believe the Koran to be a guide from God; “for all mankind, at all times, and till the end of time.” That is a matter of faith.
The essence of the Koran is Al-amr bi 'l-ma’ruf wa 'n-nahy ani 'l-munkar. That message is repeated many times in our Holy Book. The approximate translation is, “Command good and forbid evil;” or in my Malay, “Biasakan yang baik, jauhi yang jahat.” Succinct and elegant in both languages as it is in the original classical Arabic!
This central message is often missed in the thick tomes of religious scholars, erudite sermons of bedecked ulamas, and frenzied jingoisms of zealous jihadists. Meanwhile in Malaysia, Islam is reduced to a government bureaucracy manned by control-freaks intent on dictating our lives. Yes, they are all men.
Their mission has little to do with that golden rule. Theirs is an exercise of raw unbridled power, all in the name of Allah of course. Not-too-bright and self-serving politicians are only too willing to ride this Islamic tiger. Once ridden however, it is mighty difficult to dismount, as the Afghanis and Pakistanis are finding out.
Malaysia’s saving grace is its significant non-Muslim minority, an effective buffer and formidable bulwark against the intrusive reach of these political Islamists. Another is that we are blessed with our share of Hang Jebats, courageous souls committed to justice and offended by these opportunistic Hang Tuahs of Islam.
Zaid Ibrahim is one such individual. He demonstrated his Jebatism many years ago by quitting his senior cabinet position, a rare occurrence in Malaysia. His reputation soared following that.
He brings this tenacious trait to his latest book, Assalamualiakum (Peace Be Upon You) where he assails these government-issued ulamas for their zealous preoccupation with the superficialities of our faith while ignoring our blatant “un-Islamic” core, as with our corrupt leaders and the injustices they perpetrated, as well as their flagrant and frequent abuses of power.
Such perversions of the faith are now the norms in much of the Islamic world. Malaysians, especially Malays, need to be reminded of this grim and depressing reality. Zaid’s collection of essays does this; they are tough, sophisticated, and most of all brutally frank.
Many have also done this but what makes Zaid unique is that he marshals the logic, rationality and persuasiveness of an accomplished lawyer that he was in his writing. Many Malays, unsure of their grounding in Islam, obsequiously defer to these civil servant-ulamas. Not Zaid. He proves that you do not need a madrasah background, flowing robes, or exquisite tajweed to expose these pretenders in our faith.
Zaid shies away from long quotations of the Koran and hadith, de rigueur in current Islamic discourses. His only paean to Arabism is the title. As he noted in his preface, he could have substituted the warm and welcoming Malay equivalent, Salam sejahtera. Noting that sejahtera is of Sanskrit and thus Hindu origin, he demurred. The zealots might misinterpret his gesture.
To Zaid, such concepts as justice, privacy, the rule of law, and representative government, long dismissed by Islamists as Western constructs and thus ipso facto un-Islamic, have deep roots in Islamic tradition and are very much in consonant with the central message of the Koran.
I agree. Consider privacy. Legend has it that Caliph Omar once spied an unmarried couple engaged in what Malaysians call khalwat (“close proximity”). He barged in to confront the couple, threatening them with the severest penalty – stoning to death, at least for the woman. Unperturbed, the male partner instead chastised Omar, admitting that yes, he had indeed sinned against God, but Omar on the other hand had wronged him and his partner by violating their privacy. The wise Caliph relented.
Three points here. One, the primacy of personal privacy in Islam; two, citizens should not hesitate confronting even the highest authorities should they stray out of line; and three, the pivotal difference between wronging God versus wronging your fellow humans. Tell that to those voyeuristic Islamists who are wont to snoop into hotel rooms!
As for our leaders’ frequent abuse of power and disregard for the rule of law, consider 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.” Tell that to those overbearing leaders, religious as well as secular.
Islam is more than a religion; it is a complete and total way of life. As such discourses in Islam should not be the exclusive preserve of only ulamas and religious scholars. All have something, and Zaid has much, to contribute.
As a practicing lawyer Zaid was concerned with justice at the personal level. As a public figure he fights for justice at the societal level. Without justice a society cannot be Islamic regardless of its label. It is that simple.
Zaid exposes pervasive injustices in the Islamic world perpetrated by religious leaders as well as secular ones wrapped in religious garbs. Little wonder that Ayatollah Khomeini drove more out of Islam than even Stalin could! Deprived of justice, peace eludes much of the Muslim world.
Malaysia may not be led by ulamas (except for Kelantan), but as Zaid wrote, it is in “an increasingly steep descent into a more regressive form of Islamic administration . . . not by the desire to promote Islamic values . . . but to exert political control.”
As for ulamas leading the state, Zaid’s Kelantan is “Exhibit A” on why they should not. It has appalling poverty as well as the highest rates of AIDS, incest, drug abuse, and abandoned babies. It also has the highest number of surfers of pornographic sites!
Zaid renders a great service to Muslims by reminding us of the sterling essence of our great faith. For non-Muslims, Assalamualikum is a lucid exposition of the Islamic foundation of such concepts as justice, privacy, the rule of law, and other humanistic aspirations hitherto wrongly assumed to be exclusively modern and Western.
Stated in a different way, with Assalamualaikum Zaid Ibrahim performs a pristine form of jihad and the purest of dakwah.
M. Bakri Musa firstname.lastname@example.org www.bakrimusa.com Morgan Hill, California Syawal 1436/July 2015
The Halus (Subtle) Way Datuk Onn Aborted the Malayan Union M. Bakri Musa www.bakrimusa.com
In an earlier commentary I gave high
marks to our leaders for their enlightened ways and sophisticated
strategies in the pursuit of our independence. Malaysia could have
easily gone in a very different direction following the Japanese defeat.
It could have just as quickly been turned into a permanent British
The man responsible for sparing the
country that terrible fate was Datuk Onn Jaafar. He was a former senior
civil servant, a significant and rare achievement for a native. Had he
been a Hang Tuah, ever loyal to his sultan and the British, there would
be no limit to the height of his personal achievement within the
colonial civil service. He could have been the first native
Governor-General of the Dominion of Malaya.
Instead, in the tradition of
Jebat, Onn saw the grave injustice perpetrated upon Malays by the
colonialists in cahoots with our sultans. They had sold out our country,
repeating what their brother Sultan of Johor did with Singapore 127
The pathetic aspect to the
Malayan Union Treaty, like the earlier ceding of Singapore to the
British, was how easy it was to make those Malay sultans capitulate. Sir
Harold MacMichael, the British point man, needed only a few months to
secure the agreement. There was not even a whimper of protest from the
Some, like the Johor Sultan,
enthusiastically signed the treaty within a day or two, and were proud
of that fact! The few who had flashes of courage quickly backed down
under threat of being replaced or prosecuted for presumed collaboration
with the Japanese during the war.
It turned out that those Malay sultans – Allah’s representatives on earth – also menurut arahan (follow direction), as per the mantra of the civil service, not from Allah but from Sir Harold.
Thanks to Datuk Onn, the Union
treaty was rescinded. He took on the mighty British and prevailed, with
no help from his sultans. Onn did it without being biadap (treasonous) to the sultans or resorting to armed insurrections.
It is ironic that Onn would be
instrumental in this endeavor. Earlier the Sultan of Johor had banished
Onn for daring to criticize him. If Onn had been consumed with settling
old scores and at the same time endear himself to the British, he would
have let the treaty be, and those Malay sultans would today be reduced
to the status of the Sultan of Sulu.
Onn’s accomplishment was even more
remarkable considering that by the time he mounted the challenge,
Malayan Union was already a fait accompli. The sultans had
already signed the treaty, ceding all their authorities to the British.
Essentially Malayan Union made what was hitherto “indirect” British rule
into a direct one, with no pretense to the contrary.
The open but peaceful opposition to
the Malayan Union (and also indirectly, the Malay sultans) was truly a
transformational cultural phenomenon. It was a genuine mass movement
made even more remarkable considering the speed with which it was
planned, organized and executed. Consider that up until a few months
before the event there was not a single national Malay organization;
there were plenty of little ones each with its own parochial agenda. Onn
changed all that with UMNO.
The other remarkable aspect was that
up until that time it was the accepted wisdom that Malays were an
apathetic lot, not in the least interested in politics; hence the
British overreaching attempt at railroading the treaty. Onn changed that
too. Today, Malays are obsessed with politics to the detriment of
everything else. Who says we cannot change Malays? Onn did it
successfully, and in a matter of years, not decades or generations.
Before Datuk Onn, the Malay
nationalist movement was slow to develop because of our separate
political identities in the various states. Some of the “Federated”
states felt that they were better off with British “protection.” The
“un-Federated” states meanwhile felt very proud of their “independence,”
even though that was more illusory than real.
Even among the “un-Federated” states
there were significant variations. Johor’s sultan was an unabashed
Anglophile; his Kelantan counterpart was notorious for his insularity.
Their subjects in turn followed the patterns set by their sultans.
Even as late as the 1950s and 60s
Malays still lacked a sense of common national identity, with Kelantan
Malays considering themselves separate from those in Johore. Even
government jobs and quarters were restricted to “anak Johore” (the
children of Johore) or “anak Selangor.”
Thanks to Onn, the formation of UMNO
was the first time Malays began to have a sense of national
consciousness, at least politically. It would be a few more decades
before that sentiment would truly be felt by the masses, and then spread
One undisputed but not widely
acknowledged fact to the successful opposition against the Malayan Union
was that Malay sultans were of no help. They were in fact very much
part of the problem with their earlier capitulation through British
flattery. The pathetic part was that the sultans’ price for their
agreement was so ridiculously cheap: a modest stipend and the knightship
of some ancient English order. Regardless whether it was the sultans’
collective stupidity or British perfidy, the result was the same.
The surprise was that there was
minimal republican or anti-sultan sentiment expressed during all those
mass protests against the Malayan Union despite the obvious sellouts by
the rulers. On the contrary, the Malay masses reacted in exactly the
reverse and counter-intuitive fashion; they expressed their unreserved
affection and loyalty to their sultans.
This display was no more
dramatically demonstrated than on that one day in Kota Baru, Kelantan,
where all the sultans were gathered for the formal installation of the
first British Governor-General. The rakyats packed the palace grounds such that the sultans could not leave to attend the ceremony.
On the surface it was a show of
massive public loyalty; on the subtle side, it was nothing more than the
mass kidnapping of the sultans by their subjects. The Malay masses had
in effect “CB'ed" (confined to barracks) their sultans.
I doubt whether those sultans
received the subtle message that day. That would require some degree of
subtlety, intelligence and sophistication for which they had not
demonstrated thus far. The British on the other hand heard the message
loud and clear, and the Malayan Union treaty was rescinded.
Had it not been for the rakyats intervening, Malay sultans today would have been all titles and tanjak (ceremonial headgear symbolizing the sultan’s power) but little else.
So when former Prime Minister
Mahathir lamented that he could not change Malays, and by implication we
cannot be changed, I bring forth this dramatic example of our
remarkable transformation in response to the Malayan Union threat.
An enterprising soul, Fahmi Reza,
has collected all the file pictures and cartoons of the anti-Malayan
Union protests into his award-winning documentary, “Sepuloh Tahum
Sebulum Merdeka” ("Ten Years Before Merdeka"). It is truly inspiring to
see those Malays, young and old, male and female, in sarongs and in
suits marching calmly and peacefully in the streets. Their only uniting
feature was the defiance and resolve that shone bright on their faces.
Fahmi Reza has done a remarkable
public service in producing this documentary. To his credit, he has also
made it freely available on the ‘Net.
Much has been written about the
aborted Malayan Union, both from the perspective of the natives as well
as the colonials. I have yet however, to see anyone portray those mass
rallies against the treaty as expressions of our rebellion against the
sultans. That was a measure of Onn's subtlety and sophistication.
Onn was attuned to the halus ways
of our culture and used that to bring out the best in us. He united us
towards a shared and noble objective - to kill off the existential
threat posed by the Malayan Union Treaty.
In contrast, today Malaysia is
cursed with a leader who revels in the crass aspects of Malay culture,
in particular our propensity to berlagak (conspicuous
consumption). Najib's jetting around in his luxurious jets and his
wife's Bollywood gaudy tastes are expressions of this ugly and
destructive trait. His underlings only too willingly ape him with gusto;
monkey see,monkey do. Onn united the rakyats; Najib polarizes Malays, as well as Malaysians.
Onn's legacy is a free Malaysia; Najib's will be a Malaysia that is corrupt, divided, and mired in debt.
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
Why do you stay in prison when the door is wide open? Jalal ad Din Rumi (1207-73)
path we chose in pursuing independence represented the best elements of
our culture. We followed the right leaders and they in turn adopted the
right strategy, one of co-operation and negotiation. That was our
nature, to be bertolak ansur (give and take); posturing and confrontation were just not our style.
Our leaders’ timing too was perfect as Britain had grown weary of
her colonies. We were also lucky in that we were dealing with the
British. Had it been the Chinese, well, consider the fate of the
Tibetans and Uighurs. Had it been the Russians, look at Ukraine and
Today revisionist historians belittle the
valiant efforts of our fathers of independence. Let me set these
latter-day interpreters of events straight. Had we opted for Burhanuddin
Al Helmy or Chin Peng, the nation’s history and the fate of our people
would be far different today.
In times of crises or
profound changes, we have to be extra cautious in whom we choose to lead
us, or stated differently, in whom we should follow. It is during such
times that we have to exercise our critical faculties and be extra
vigilant in choosing our leaders. Malaysia is in such a state today. We
have a leader in Najib Razak who is severely-challenged with respect to
honesty, integrity, and competency. Profligacy he has in abundance.
Those enlightened leaders who guided us peacefully to independence
should inspire us. As for our earlier heroes who shepherded us to Islam,
there is little written about them as our culture had just transited
into the written word. In lieu of that I have highlighted the heroes
from our legends. One is Hang Tuah, a figure high in the palace
hierarchy; the other, an ordinary citizen, Hang Nadim. They may or may
not be based on historical characters but they nonetheless serve a
useful purpose to remind us of the power of a free mind.
In Sulalatus Salatin
(Malay Annals) there is the story of Temasek (old Singapore) being
regularly plagued by schools of flying fish. Hundreds fell victim to
this scourge, impaled by the fish’s sharp snouts. All efforts at
combating this piscine intrusion proved unsuccessful. Then a young boy
suggested to the sultan to plant a row of bananas along the shoreline.
That way, Hang Nadim told the sultan, when the flying fish darted
onshore, their snouts would be impaled on the plants’ soft stems.
The scheme worked wonderfully well, and the pleased sultan decided
to honor the clever young man. The sultan’s advisors however, had second
thoughts. If that youth could dream up such a brilliant scheme at a
very young age, they convinced the sultan, what else would he think of
later as an adult? Sensing a future threat, the sultan had Hang Nadim
That young man certainly had a free
mind. He could, to borrow a cliché, think outside the box. He was also
not at all shy in telling his sultan on what to do. In a deeply feudal
society as Malay society was then (still is), that took great courage.
That boy however, paid dearly for his courage and free-mindedness.
Tragic as that was for him and his family, the far greater tragedy was
borne by society. Executing the young man not only deprived that society
of its bright star but also sent a clear message that it did not pay–in
fact downright dangerous–to be innovative and original. Such a society
could never aspire to greatness. That was a steep price to pay, just to
protect the exalted positions of the sultan’s selfish and shortsighted
If you kill off your bright talents, a
generation or two later you will have a society of dumbbells. When the
Mongols invaded the Muslim heartland, the first thing they did was to
kill off the intellectuals and luminaries. That was the most effective
and efficacious way to decapitate that society and culture.
Hang Nadim’s treatment reminded me of the ancient Mayan practice of
sacrificing their beautiful virgins to their Gods. A few generations
later, all the newborns in that society were ugly, as the beautiful
potential mothers had been killed.
The legend of Hang
Nadim reflects more on society than on him. Every society is blessed
with its share of Hang Nadims. What it does with the blessings would in
large measure determine its fate.
Consider the European
aristocracies’ practice of taking in gifted citizens under its
patronage. The Romanov Dynasty nurtured the best Russian artists,
composers and writers. Granted, the arts were often used as political
instruments and artists were continually divided between devotion to
their craft and to their royal patrons, but at least those creative
citizens received royal support and recognition.
if the sultan had taken Hang Nadim under his patronage. He would
blossom, exploring other bright ideas and expanding on his banana
plantation scheme. There could be a flourishing fresh-fruit industry as
well as a fish-processing plant. The fish waste would be excellent
fertilizer for the rice fields. Imagine, three industries spawned and
the attendant jobs for the sultan’s subjects, quite apart from ensuring
their safety, just from one bright idea!
If the sultan
had gone beyond and married the young man to one of the princesses, that
would ensure future members of the royal family would have something
between their ears, We would then be more likely to get sultans who
could choose smarter advisers and make wiser decisions.
The far greater reward would not be on the young man or the future
average intelligence of the royal family but on society. Other bright
young men and women would now be inspired to pursue their own creative
and innovative ideas in the hope of getting similar royal recognition.
Pretty soon the royal court would be full of these bright kids and the
sultan would have the best advice. Both he and his kingdom would
Today many lament Najib's dysfunctional
leadership. Conveniently forgotten is that the mistake on Najib was made
a generation earlier. Who was responsible in UMNO and in the country to
have let this flawed character rise up so high?
Bukhari al-Jauhari’s seminal Taj-us Salatin
(Crown Jewel of Sultans) outlined the rules governing the relationship
between the ruled and their rulers. Both are answerable to a higher
authority. Consequently the ruler is to govern in a just manner in
accordance to divine dictates. Bukhari went beyond; it is the duty of
rulers to have just, pious, honest, and knowledgeable advisors in
carrying out the functions of governance.
The king must “selalu rindukan sahabat akan orang yang bererpengetahuan ... ” (constantly yearn for the friendship of those most knowledgeable).
Rulers cannot simply lament the poor advice they get or the
inadequacies of their advisors, as Raja Nazrin of Perak tried recently
in an address to a university community. Rulers must take
responsibility; they cannot simply blame their advisors. They must go
beyond and diligently seek counsel from those who are competent and
honest. Failure to do so would be a dereliction of royal duties, at
which point citizens would no longer owe any loyalty to the ruler.
Two points about Taj-us Salatin;
first, it was written in early 17th Century when Malay society was
steeped in its feudal ways. It took great courage and a free mind to
write such a treatise. Unfortunately we do not know much about this
heroic writer, except through his works.
The second is that the volume predated Hobbes’ Leviathan,
another opus on the same subject, by over half a century. So far
reaching were Bukhari’s ideas that earlier colonials concluded that Taj-us Salatin
could not possibly be an original but mere translation, possibly from
some Middle Eastern sources, as no native could possibly possess the
intellectual wherewithal to undertake such serious philosophical work.
To claim it as otherwise would defy the colonials’ narrative of the
“dumb lazy” natives. The colonials scoured the Middle East looking for
the original. They are still looking. Those colonial minds had been
closed long before they landed on Malay soil.
Shifting from political philosophy to classical literature, in Hikayat Hang Tuah
we have the two protagonists. One, Hang Tuah, is the hero and eponymous
legend. Even the name is auspicious–Tuah, the blessed one. In contrast,
his nemesis Hang Jebat rhymes with yang jahat, the sinister one.
The legend begins with the pair in childhood, together with another three, bonding as brothers. Later they became hulubalangs
(knights) for the sultan, in the manner of King Arthur’s Knights of the
Round Table, minus the equality implied by the round table. Hang Tuah,
being numero uno, took his loyalty to the sultan to extremes, even lying
on his behalf to deceive a young princess. Soon however, palace
intrigue took over and Tuah was charged with treason and sentenced to
The sultan replaced Tuah with Jebat. On
discovering the grave injustice perpetrated on his dear friend, Jebat
relentlessly pursued the guilty parties. Threatened by Jebat’s
aggressive crusade, the sultan summoned his chief minister for help. He
suggested the sultan recall Hang Tuah whom the minister had secretly
protected. Tuah, ever loyal to his sultan despite the earlier death
The climax had the two childhood buddies battling it out in a duel, with Tuah killing Jebat.
The conventional wisdom has Tuah the hero (as suggested by the
title), ready to defend the sultan, right or wrong. The free-minded
contemporary thinker Kassim Ahmad, partial to the antihero sentiments of
his youth, concluded otherwise. Far from being the hero, Tuah is the
archetypical palace sycophant willing to kill his dear friend in order
to regain the sultan’s favor, even that of an unjust sultan. Jebat is
the genuine hero who sacrificed his life to right a gross injustice.
Tuah is loyal to the person of the sultan, Jebat to the principle of
Today Malaysia is again blighted with a leader
who exceeds the Melaka sultan of yore in his many deficiencies. Like
that sultan, Najib extols sycophancy over competency among his
ministers. And again like Melaka of yore, we are cursed with a glut of
Hang Tuahs ever willing to humor Najib. What we desperately need are our
Hang Jebats and Hang Nadims.
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
It is human nature that when things go well we pay little
attention to them; we take them in stride as if they are meant to be, the
natural consequence. When we assume such an attitude, we miss some significant
learning opportunities. We can learn so much more from our success than we
could ever from our failures. For that to happen however, we first have to
recognize our successes. This can sometimes be no easy task.
would be to undertake a mental exercise, to imagine if things had taken a
different path. What if Malays had not embraced Islam but fought and rejected
it? Likewise, what would be our fate had we enthusiastically embraced the
Europeans and adopted their ways? As for our pursuit of independence, imagine
had we bowed to the wishes our sultans and their British “advisers” and
accepted our fate to be under permanent British domination, as the Malayan
Union Treaty would have it? Lastly, assume we had let those rabble rousers be
our leaders fighting for our independence, and they took to fighting the
British literally and seriously.
of these instances there are ready examples of societies and cultures that had
indeed chosen precisely those paths that I just outlined, and we can readily
see the consequences today of their collective decisions then.
brethren on the island
of Bali were not
enthusiastic about Islam; they decided to stick to their ancient animist and
Hindu beliefs. That would be the fate of the greater Malay society had we not
embraced Islam. I have tremendous respect for the Balinese; their pacifist ways
appeal to me. However, I would not have the same qualms about my lovely island
with its pristine beaches turned into a cheap replica of Waikiki or Australia’s
Gold Coast, and my people reduced to performing exotic dances for tourists.
more practical level, had we not embraced Islam our culture would still be
trapped in the oral tradition and we would not have any written literature. We
would definitely be the poorer for that.
next juncture, imagine had we fully embraced the colonials. Again, there are
ready examples; the Filipinos embraced the Spaniards, becoming devout Catholics
in the process. Malays today would never wish to trade places with our Filipino
brothers. That is not to say there is anything wrong with them, just that we do
not wish to be like them. The Filipinos may have embraced the Spanish ways but
the Spaniards have not reciprocated. I doubt whether Filipinos get preferential
treatment to work in Spain or in any of the former Spanish colonies. Indeed
except for their shared faith, there is little else that the Filipinos have in
common with the Spaniards.
least the Filipinos were lucky; they could have easily suffered the fate of the
Mayans; their civilization was completely destroyed with the arrival of the
recently, imagine if Datuk Onn had not galvanized us to oppose the Malayan
Union. We have ready examples of that too. Australia and New Zealand are both
British dominions; look at their native populations, the Aborigines and Maoris
to home are Christmas and Keeling Islands. Both are only a few hundred miles
south of Sumatra but through the quirks of colonial history, they belong to
Australia, many thousand miles away to the south. Both islands have substantial
Malay populations, including a few former sultans and their families. See how
well the Australians treat them and how those Malays fare.
resistance against the Malayan Union Treaty we held fast to our values. We did
not derhaka (rebel) against our
sultans although we had plenty of reasons for doing so as they had literally
sold our country to the British. Instead we co-opted the finest values of our
culture – our loyalty to our sultans – to rescind that treaty.
the path towards independence, imagine had we thrown our lot with Chin Peng and
followed the violent path he pursued. We would still today be mourning fresh
victims of our “war of independence” and freedom would still elude us.
arrival of Islam and European intrusions were both external events imposed upon
us. We did not initiate them; we merely responded. Yet our culture had equipped
us well in both circumstances. The path we chose for independence was of our
own making; we acquitted ourselves exceptionally well there.
change especially when initiated by events beyond our control can potentially
be threatening to the existing order. With Islam, our leaders and rakyats as
well as our culture reacted positively and creatively, and we were the better
for it. With colonization, we reacted negatively as rightly we should to any
evil. However, having recognized its vastly superior power we were divided in
our subsequent responses.
While our leaders made the necessary accommodations
and in the end fully absorbed the values of the colonials, they impressed upon
their followers to resist or at the very least not participate. It is this
hypocrisy on the part of our leaders and the divergence in their responses as
compared to the rakyats that made our collective experience with colonialism so
much more negative than it ought to have been. As a result our society
unnecessarily suffered the ugly consequences.
the pursuit of independence, we relied on our traditional cultural values to
guide us and in so doing we acquitted ourselves very well.
central lesson, as demonstrated by our response to Islam and in the pursuit of
independence, is that there must be commonality of goals and aspirations
between leaders and followers. This commonality can only be achieved through
genuine two-way communications, from up to down and down towards up. That is
the key strategy we should adopt as we go forward in dealing with today’s
key element, again demonstrated in our own approach towards independence, is
that we must choose our leaders wisely with the hope that they in turn would
choose the right strategy and pick the right team as well as the right timing.
reactions to those events of the past did not occur by themselves; there were
equally pivotal personalities that guided us. They were remarkably free-minded,
ready to accept the challenges facing them and lead the rest of the community.
Their examples should inspire us.
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating
The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
Malay Schizophrenic Response to British Colonialism
Malay Schizophrenic Response to British Colonialism M. Bakri Musa www.bakrimusa.com
actively shunned and refused to participate in the various colonial
endeavors even those that could potentially benefit us. Instead we
undertook a form of passive resistance, utilizing what John C Scott
refers to as “weapons of the weak.”
these everyday forms of passive resistance may not grab headlines,
nonetheless they are akin to the cumulative accumulation of the coral
reefs. In the aggregate and over time they exert a profound impact. When
the ship of state runs aground on such reefs, attention is directed to
the shipwreck and not to the aggregations of petty acts that made those
treacherous reefs possible.
So was the
Malayan Union initiative shipwrecked upon a reef of resentment and
resistance that had quietly been building up and concretized over time.
Of course the weapon of the weak had its price. As those brave little
acts of defiance did not fit the colonials’ narrative of us as being
“nature’s gentlemen,” they had to invent new ones. Thus was born the
myth of the lazy native that later became the colonialists’ convenient
justification for bringing in those indentured laborers.
Those tribulations notwithstanding, we should realize that even in the
most evil system there are slivers of good and of individuals with
goodwill within it. In our rightful condemnation of colonization we must
also be aware of the good colonization had brought to our society,
whether those were intentional or merely unintended consequences.
Then there were those enlightened colonial officers who were
sympathetic to our cause. There was for example, R J Wilkinson who was
instrumental in setting up Malay College in 1905, and Richard Winstedt,
the Sultan Idris Training College in 1922.
The British also outlawed some of the more odious aspects of our culture, like slavery and indentured labor (orang hamba).
They also brought in modern education and the rubber industry. Yes,
they also burdened our land with a race problem that we are still
Seeing that we could not possibly
prevail if we were to frontally confront the colonials, nonetheless we
could have through our leaders arranged a workable accommodation instead
of shunning the colonials entirely. Then they would not have to import
those cheap foreign labors. More importantly, the colonials then would
not have to concoct those ugly myths about us.
With our leaders’ encouragement we could have participated in those
colonial ventures and learned something from them, much like Munshi
Abdullah did. Likewise, had we not projected wholly evil motives on the
part of the colonials we could have encouraged our children to attend
the much superior English schools. Had we done so, our community would
not have been left so far behind come time of independence.
After all, our leaders (including and especially the sultans) readily
corroborated with the colonials. They unabashedly absorbed the ways of
the English and lapped up any scrap of British title bestowed upon them.
The sultans and aristocrats did not hesitate in sending their children
to English schools, even their daughters to those “convents.”
Our leaders should have likewise encouraged the rakyats to do the same
and not have double standards – one for them and another for the rest.
Our leaders were hypocrites in being shameless anglophiles while
condemning the colonials in front of the rakyats.
This was in stark contrast with the way we dealt with the coming of
Islam. Both leaders and rakyats were honest with each other; we were all
on the same wavelength, each supporting the other in their collective
and united response to this new force.
Another reason I did not give top marks to our encounter with
colonization was this. We failed to differentiate the significant
differences between the various colonizers. They may all be Europeans,
but there were vast differences between the Dutch and Portuguese on one
hand, and the British on the other. For the Dutch, look what they did to
Indonesia; for the Portuguese, Angola and East Timor.
As far as colonials go, the British were slightly on the benign side;
their Anglo Saxon ethics and sense of fairness are worthy of our
emulation. Besides, being the nation that ushered in the Industrial
Revolution they had something to teach the world, and that included
Had we embraced the technological
modernization that the British had to offer just as enthusiastically as
we did the spiritual values of Islam, we could have had the best of both
worlds; the British for our material and worldly needs; Islam our
spiritual and “other worldly” yearnings.
we did not embrace the modernization brought in by the British
reflected our own insecurity with Islam. We feared that the infidel
colonials would “contaminate” our Islamic values. By not partaking in
the educational and other opportunities afforded by the British (scarce
as they were), we put ourselves at a significant disadvantage vis a vis the other communities in Malaysia that harbored no such reservations.
Imagine had we enthusiastically utilized the British influence to
enhance our literature and language, or learn trading skills from the
nation of shopkeepers. Our national language would by now be fully
developed and we would be accomplished entrepreneurs. Instead, we were
obsessed with maintaining the “purity” of our language to the extent of
avoiding obvious words like “radio” preferring instead our very own
native and “pure” tetuang udara (lit. pouring out air), no matter how awkward that sounded.
Ironically, Malay language expanded exponentially only after
independence when we, without reservations adopted wholesale English
words even when there were perfectly adequate Malay ones!
As for trading skills, we missed out on the Arabs and again with the
English. No wonder today we have only the pseudo variety of
entrepreneurs in our midst.
Next: Imagining Otherwise
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
Lessons From The Past M. Bakri Musa www.bakrimusa.com
The coming of Islam, European colonization, and the pursuit of
independence - these were transformational events in our culture that
resulted in the toppling of the Malay collective coconut shell. In all
three instances our culture had served us well in guiding us through
Yet, and this seems perverse, in our current tribulations we
are far too inclined to blame our culture. I suggest that instead of
forever berating and blaming the presumed inadequacies of our culture,
it would be far more meaningful and productive if we were to analyze and
learn how our culture had dealt with the major events of the past, and
apply those insights to our current challenges.
If I were to grade the performance of our culture to the three
transformational events in our history, I would give an exemplary
A-plus for the path we chose towards independence, an A-minus for our
reception to the coming of Islam, and a respectable B for our
performance during colonization.
As for that brief period of Japanese Occupation, the fact that
we survived was blessing enough. Indeed we did better; we maintained
our honor and integrity. Contrary to the fears expressed by the likes of
Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew who wondered out loud whether during a time of
famine his Malay neighbors would spare him their last grains of rice,
rest assured that Malays willingly shared what little we had even with
our once oppressors, as Jean Paget experienced in "A Town Like Alice."
A grading exercise is only meaningful if accompanied by some
useful comments. I gave a perfect score for our pursuit of independence
because it was done right in every respect. We chose the right leaders
and they chose the right strategy; it was also the right timing. Our
approach was pragmatic, and that proved productive.
The path we chose reflected the best elements of our culture.
It emphasized fairness and generosity, and we put both to good use by
working together with the other communities to achieve our goal. We kept
our eye on the ultimate prize, and we were willing to make the
necessary compromises in order to reach our final destination. We did
not consider the give and take of negotiations as a sign of weakness,
rather of strength. Timbang menimbang, as we say, of being fair and balanced.
With such a mindset we were able to work readily with
non-Malays towards independence. We did not consider the exercise of
collaboration as expedience, a sign of weakness, or the price we had to
pay but as a positive endeavor towards a common goal. Had we been
consumed with the “purity” of our goals and had been unwilling to
compromise, we would still be a British colony today and be left even
That said, the path we chose towards independence was far from
smooth. There were tough negotiations and last minute snags not only
between Malays and non-Malays as represented within the Alliance, but
also among Malays, specifically between UMNO (which at that time
represented the overwhelming majority of Malays) and the sultans.
Ultimately commonsense prevailed, and with a united front within
Alliance and with the sultans, the negotiations with the British were
There were other equally passionate nationalistic leaders.
With no disrespect to them, none measured up to Tunku, Tun Razak, and
his team in Alliance. Had we hitched our fate on Burhanuddin Al Helmy,
another giant of a leader, we would be like Indonesia today; with Malay
girls desperate to find work as maids in neighboring countries. I do not
question Burhanuddin’s anti-colonialist credentials but his avowed goal
was union with Indonesia.
Had we latched on to Ahmad Boestaman, he would have embraced
Chin Peng in a grand gesture of socialistic reconciliation, a strategy
so loved by those who think that problems could be solved by simply
forgetting or ignoring differences. Sukarno did that with Aidit, leader
of the Indonesian Communist Party, and was nearly done in, as was
Chin Peng was also for independence, but his goal was to
realize the aspiration of a Greater China as revealed in some ancient
maps found in the musty tombs of long-gone emperors. Chin Peng and
Burhanuddin were alike in their thinking and strategies; the former,
communism and China; the latter, Islam and Indonesia.
Tunku too tried this reconciliation route, but after meeting
Chin Peng at the Baling Peace Talks in December 1955, quickly gave that
idea up. Tunku remembered well the basic rule to any negotiation: stick
to your principles. He intuitively recognized Chin Peng for what he was
and wisely decided that it would not be prudent to share a blanket with a
Our culture’s response to the coming of Islam was exemplary in
many ways. We saw its innate beauty and evident verity, and embraced
the faith enthusiastically. Yet in so doing we did not dismiss or
abandon our then existing ways and identity. Our exuberant acceptance of
this new faith did not preclude us from continuing our traditional
practices and adat (customs). The genius of our ancestors was
to creatively harmonize the two, not picking and choosing what we like
from each and discarding what we deemed unsuitable, rather the artful
fusion of both. We did not become less of a Muslim or Malay in so doing
but better human beings and our society the better for it.
The closest modern equivalent to our exuberant embrace of
Islam would be the current Chinese accommodation to capitalism and
globalization. Just as our ancestors created their own “Islam with Malay
characteristics” as it were, separate from those of the Arab, Persian
or Indian variety, likewise today’s China enthusiastically embraces
capitalism albeit “with Chinese characteristics,” a unique brand
identifiably different from the American, British or Scandinavian
strain. It is capitalism nonetheless and has brought unimaginable
benefits to the Chinese, just as Islam did to Malays.
I did not grant top marks to our ancestors’ embracing Islam
because in their eagerness they failed to grasp fully its vast universe
beyond the spiritual and theological. They did not fully appreciate the
tremendous non-religious contributions of the Arabs to the arts and
sciences through Islam. Consequently there were no Malay translations of
texts beyond the religious and hikayat (legends). Nor did our ancestors emulate the highly successful trading practices of those early Arabs.
Our ancestors also failed to appreciate the full breath and
diversity of Islamic theological thoughts, or of Islam’s tolerance to
dissenting viewpoints, at least in its early years. Our culture’s
failure in that arena would handicap us in our subsequent dealings with
the inevitable differences in interpretations within our faith. We
impute evil motives on those with whom we disagree; we are too eager to
label as apostates those who disagree with us.
We became so enamored with those Arab traders and so
eager to emulate them that we closed ourselves to other equally valid
interpretations and practices of Islam. We let ourselves be colonized
mentally in that we would view any other version of Islam as being bida’a, an adulteration of the faith.
Our embrace of the Arabs could not be more different than our
reaction to the Europeans. Our culture was right in recognizing
colonization’s inherent evil nature. No human group has a right to
subjugate others under any pretext, be it noblesse oblige or the presumption of a supposed “white man’s burden.”
We should fight evil (and colonization was that) but in doing
so we should also recognize our own weaknesses. If we realize that our
enemy is overwhelming and that there can be no meaningful or possible
way for us to prevail, then we should be prepared to make the necessary
accommodations to that harsh reality. There is no need to sacrifice our
people needlessly. Life is precious; adapt and live for another day.
The powers of the colonialists were indeed awesome, and we
would be nothing but easy prey had we aggressively resisted. In such
instances our first priority should be to ensure our collective
survival. With time we could learn from our adversaries and only then
perhaps could we build a credible force to challenge them.
As per the wisdom of our Koran, when we see evil we must use
our hands to combat it, meaning, do so physically. Failing that we
should use our tongue, that is, voice our disapproval. When even that is
not feasible, then we should disapprove of it in our hearts, though
that is the path least favored by Allah. Stated differently, we should
not senselessly sacrifice our precious lives to a lost cause and that
there is infinite human capacity to adjust while remaining true to our
faith. We saw that in Stalin’s Soviet Union and elsewhere.
British colonialism was a formidable force and we could not
possibly prevail. We could not challenge it with our hands; we were no
match for their guns and cannons. We could voice our disapproval, but
their prisons too had infinite capacity. Thus we were left to
disapproving it only in our hearts, and we did.
When it became clear that we were vastly outmatched by
colonialism, our people responded in the only way they could. They
resorted to using the “weapons of the weak,” borrowing James C. Scott’s
Next: Our Schizophrenic Response to British Colonialism
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
The third defining moment in Malay culture was the peaceful path we chose towards independence. The Malay world was turned upside down with colonization; it altered the physical as well as social landscape. The latter was even more profound and threatening.
Despite that, and defying the trend of the time, we opted for this peaceful path through negotiations and collaborations in pursuit of our independence.
If one were to stroll along the countryside of pre-colonial Malaysia, there would of course be no paved roads. One would have to literally cut a swath through the thick jungle. The only practical route for travel was by rivers and waterways.
The British built roads and replaced the thick jungle with neat rows of identical, boring but highly productive rubber trees. As for the rivers, once teeming with fish, they were now like kopi susu (cafe au lait) from the contamination of brown sediments from the ubiquitous tin mines.
Those earlier mines were of the cheap, primitive and labor-intensive hydraulic variety. Water under high pressure was blasted onto the hillside to get to the heavier tin ore underneath the surface. The thin but rich topsoil would be washed away, polluting streams and rivers.
The rubber estates on the other hand presented a serene scene. However, behind that cool green scenery, the rubber industry too was (and still is) highly polluting. If you happen to be anywhere near a rubber factory where those sheets are being dried, if the offensive stench does not get you then the acrid smoke certainly will. Processing the seemingly pure white latex is also extremely toxic, requiring corrosive formic acid and vast quantities of water that then also pollute the streams and water tables.
To colonial economists, that pollution is merely an externality; remediation efforts would only reduce profits. Besides, the victims were Malay villagers anyway. For them however, the streams that previously provided much-needed proteins through their fish were now barren. Worse, with the silting came frequent devastating floods.
The degradations of the environment offended not just the esthetics but also physical senses. Yet what really affected Malay sensibilities were the equally dramatic, fast moving, and very unsettling changes to the social landscape. Malays felt an existential threat by the presence of the massive hordes of foreigners brought in to work the tin mines and rubber estates.
This monumental change to the social landscape would have remained hidden and subtle had it not been for the tumultous changes in the mining industry. Those primitive, labor-intensive hydraulic mines soon gave way to the efficient, mechanized, floating dredges. Suddenly thousands of coolies were no longer needed and forced to leave the mines. They settled on Malay lands.
Soon hitherto Malay towns like Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur changed character in dramatic ways. Instead of Azzan you would hear gongs; instead of the fragrance of the lady-of-the-night flowers we had the eye-searing smoke from burning joss sticks.
With English schools being built in towns and non-Malays eagerly enrolling their children, no doubt influenced by the successes of the Queen’s Chinese, it did not take long for non-Malays to control the modern sectors of Malaysian life, especially the economy.
It was this social change that Malays found threatening and motivated our leaders to seek independence as soon as possible so our destiny would be under our control. This nationalistic zeal was further emboldened when we saw the ease with which the British were routed during World War II.
Malaysia’s peak struggle for independence was fortuitously timed with the period of worldwide de-colonization. The shame of colonization finally struck the conscience of the Western world, mocking their very concept of being civilized. Colonization betrayed the hollowness of their supposedly humanitarian Christian principles.
That realization alone was not enough for the British to give up their resource-rich colony. The country now was no longer exclusively Malay; it had a substantial immigrant population. The British had just gone through the harrowing experience with the Indian independence and the ensuing horrific human tragedies. The stain and stench of that epic human-made catastrophe was still heavy on British hands. They were not about to let that happen again to any of their other colonies.
Fortunately Malay leaders at the time, at least the more thoughtful and enlightened ones, were aware of the British dilemma. The only way the country could achieve independence was to convince the colonials that those non-Malays would not be massacred once the civilizing presence of the British was gone, and that Malays could live side by side with non-Malays, or at least tolerate their presence. In short, our leaders assured the British that the Indian horror would not be repeated on the Malay Peninsula.
Wise Malay leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Razak sought formal workable relationships with like-minded leaders from the Chinese and Indian communities. The Tunku and Tun Razak sought those leaders who were not among the recent immigrants who tended to be chauvinistic and thus unacceptable to Malays. Rather they chose those who had been in Malaysia for generations and were in tune with Malay sensitivities – the Straits Chinese and old established Indian leaders. Thus was born the Alliance Party, comprising the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), and Malayan Indian Congress (MIC).
Alliance’s resounding success in the first general elections of 1955 in which its only manifesto was the country’s independence convinced the British that this group of leaders would not turn the country into a miniature Indian nightmare.
To be sure, they were not the first to aspire leading Malaysia towards independence. For Malays, there were the traditional village leaders who scored high on the nationalism zeal but were pathetically inept in their strategic thinking. They were also woefully ignorant in the art of modern statecraft.
If those were not already significant weaknesses, they were also ignorant of British ways. How could they when they had never left their kampong or could hardly speak English? The key to winning a war is to know your adversary, as Lao Tze put it in his The Art of War. Those village Malay leaders were severely handicapped in that regard.
Their other weakness, and a very significant one, was that while they were committed to getting rid of colonial rule, their goal was not the country’s independence but its subsequent union with neighboring Indonesia in a grand Melayu Raya (Malay Union). Knowing how dysfunctional that young republic was (still is, half a century later) that strategy did not strike a chord even with Malays. Had Indonesia been successful, things would have been different.
Similarly there were leaders in the Chinese community agitating for Malaysia’s independence. Like the Malay nationalists, those leaders, principally in the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), were not interested in the country’s independence but its incorporation in a Greater China, as supposedly claimed in some moldy documents of ancient Emperors. As for leaders of the Indian community, they were consumed with affairs in the subcontinent.
In the end, the path chosen by Alliance leaders proved successful. Their overwhelming electoral victory was a powerful but not the only factor to their success in gaining independence. Those leaders also knew the ways of the English and exploited that insight. Instead of relying exclusively on the goodwill of colonial bureaucrats, those leaders also cultivated Members of Parliament, especially those from the Labor Party who were sympathetic to the Malaysian cause.
The other Malay nationalists were kampong-bred and not savvy enough to negotiate the tricky path towards independence. As for Chin Peng, leader of the MCP, while he was familiar with the ways of the British having fought with them against the Japanese and proven himself sufficiently worthy of a British royal award, the OBE, nevertheless Britain was not about to let one of her richest colonies be turned over to a communist even if the Labor Party had been in power.
The Alliance prevailed because of its leaders’ political suaveness and familiarity with the British. Those leaders’ commitment to capitalism and democracy, as well as their proven track record of working across racial lines, convinced the British that Malaysia would be in good hands. Those colonialists were right.
Today with the waning popularity of Barisan Nasional, successor to the old Alliance, revisionist historians would like us to believe that it was all those leftist rabble rousers and terrorists who should get the credit for the nation’s independence.
I do not intend to demean or dismiss the huge contributions of such towering nationalists on the left as Ahmad Boestaman and on the right as Dr. Burhanuddin Al Helmy by my remarks. They were among the first to dare imagine a world of freedom, to ignite the passion for merdeka. More importantly, they kept that fire burning.
Consider Datuk Onn; he more than anyone else was responsible for galvanizing the Malay masses. It was he who frontally took on the British and his own sultan in aborting the Malayan Union Treaty that would have made Malaysia a permanent British dominion.
In the end as with everything else, it is the result that counts. UMNO leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Razak Hussein in their wisdom sought the cooperation of the other communities, and using their political skills and personal talents captured the ultimate prize. If both were alive today, I am certain that they would generously share the credit with the other nationalists. I just wish that their successors in the current UMNO would be just a wee bit charitable and not hog all the glory.
Next: Lessons From The Past
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.