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.
I enjoy giving talks to Malaysian students. It is invigorating to be with the young; their passion, enthusiasm and idealism do rub off on me.
My hope is that when they become leaders they will hold as role models the likes of Hang Nadim and Hang Jebat, and emulate the giants in our history like Munshi Abdullah and Datuk Onn. I also hope that they will be as innovative as Ungku Aziz and Raja Petra, and like them, not be trapped by the conventional wisdom. Most of all I hope they will be as diligent and resourceful as Badri Muhammad.
In my advice to students, I remind them that their future is in their own hands. No one, not their parents, advisors on campus and the embassy, or sponsors back home, knows what is best for them. I tell these students that those other people may be sincere when offering their advice but they have not traveled the same path you have taken or experienced the challenges you have faced.
Most of all they will not be the ones to bear the consequences of your decision. By all means listen to their counsel, but in the end the decision is yours. About all the others could do after offering their advice would be to also offer you their prayers and best wishes. They should support, not veto your decision.
I claim no originality to that piece of advice. This was what my late father passed on to me. I have found it useful, hence my sharing it. We all wish our young to have calm seas ahead and fair winds behind. However if they do encounter the inevitable squalls, they should be ready to trim their sails and batten their hatches. As for the swells, they should have their surfboards ready to ride the waves and take in the exhilaration!
That is what a free mind does; turns adversities into opportunities. Suharto imprisoned Prameodya Ananta Toer, but only his body. His mind was free, free to craft his world-acclaimed Buru tetralogy. He created his own freedom. That is what we should all aspire to.
Likewise when Hamka was imprisoned, also by that goon Suharto, he wrote his multivolume and authoritative Tafsir Al Azhar, a commentary, not a translation of the Holy Koran. In his later years Hamka would muse that had he not been imprisoned he would probably have not written that Tafseer as he would be too busy giving lectures and khutbas!
As a coda I quote our great poet Usman Awang; he said it best in the last-but-one verse of his poem, Melayu (Malay), on the essence of a free mind.
Jangan takut melanggar pantang Jika pantang menghalang kemajuan; Jangan segan menentang larangan Jika yakin kepada kebenaran; Jangan malu mengucapkan keyakinan Jika percaya kepada keadilan.
Fearlessly breach the fortress If it blocks your progress!
If needed, be brusque
In pursuit of the truth. Be unashamed of your conviction Let justice be your declaration.
There are so many larangans (obstacles) in the life of a Malaysian today. We must menentang (oppose) them if we yakinkepada kebenaran and percaya kepada keadilan (have faith in the truth and believe in justice).
Kemajuan (progress), kebenaran (truth) and keadilan (justice); a free mind will hold those in high esteem and vigilantly guard against those who would erode or corrode those pristine values.
Adapted from the author's book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications. The revised second edition was released on January 30th, 2016.
Last and for a very special reason, I will cite another example of a free mind, Dr. Badri bin Muhammad. Badri was special to many, most immediately his wife and fellow Professor of Chemistry Karen Crouse, and their children Susanna, Adam, Diana, Nadira, and grandson Mitchell.
Once on meeting a group of Malaysian graduate students here in America, a few happened to have attended University Putra Malaysia. To my query whether they knew of Badri, one bright student beamed widely, “Yes, he was my wonderful chemistry professor!” and the others quickly joined in the praise. Very effusive and very heartfelt, those students were among Badri’s many legacies.
Badri died recently after a brief illness. He was special to me as we had been dear friends for a long time and shared so many bonds. Our wives knew each other well and so did our children who were of comparable ages.
Both of us came from rural Malaysia; he from Ulu Kelantan; I, Ulu Muar, Negri Sembilan. Like me, Badri went to Malay College for his Sixth Form but our years there did not overlap; he came right after I left. We met a few years later in Canada when he spent a summer as an undergraduate doing research at the University of Alberta where I was a medical student. We met by chance on campus, and typically Malaysian, he moved that very evening into the apartment I shared with a fellow medical student from Sarawak, Thaddeus Demong.
It also did not take Badri very long to take over our kitchen after tasting our version of Malaysian cuisine, and our nutrition improved considerably thereafter. I remember well his Canadian variation of our sambal, with an extra generous helping of onions and vinegar!
Later that summer we met a group of young Malaysian nurses attending a course on campus. They were taking the same classes as the Canadian degree student nurses, but because those Malaysians had only Form Five qualifications, they could not be formally registered as undergraduates. Also typically Malaysian, those nurses took that restriction in stride.
Not Badri, however. He encouraged the nurses to enroll in a summer course to qualify for formal university admission, with Badri volunteering to coach them especially in the sciences, in return for their cooking us dinners. Badri had earlier served as a temporary science teacher in Malaysia.
The girls took his advice and worked hard all summer, driven by Badri’s firm but kind tutelage. As expected with good teaching, all five passed their “departmentals” and were allowed to formally register as undergraduates that fall. Thus instead of getting merely a “certificate of completion,” those nurses became the first Malaysians to have a degree in nursing. One of them, Nik Safiah Ismail, would later become dean of nursing at UKM and a UN consultant.
That was Badri; he saw opportunities where others would passively accept constraints as the normal order of things.
Universiti Putra Malaysia was Badri’s academic home; he was a true scientist, passionate about his research. While others were consumed with lobbying for senior administrative positions, Badri was busy guiding his doctoral students and pursuing his passion – research.
For many years he stayed on campus; it was always a joy to visit him and his family there. The UPM campus is one of the most scenic, set in a lush valley away and protected from the urban hustle and bustle not too far away. My blood pressure would drop noticeably whenever I visited them. I always enjoyed those visits; strangely we did not bitch about Malaysia, instead we were busy sharing our experiences in our respective fields and comparing the differences between “bench” versus clinical research.
Badri was the first person I confided in when I decided to leave Malaysia. Like a true friend he was not at all shy in letting me know of his severe disappointment. But also like a true friend, he was supportive of my decision.
At that time the Badris had a daughter and son, both of comparable ages to my daughter and older son. In the first few years after I left, the Badris would frequently visit my parents in Seremban. Those visits meant a lot to my parents, and Badri and Karen knew that, as they allowed my parents to enjoy their grandchildren (my children) Melindah and Zachary albeit vicariously through Sue and Adam.
Badri demonstrated best the halus (soft or subtle) ways of our people, and that being halus does not preclude one from being determined and tenacious. You have to have those qualities to be a good researcher. Badri published his first research paper while still an undergraduate, a rare accomplishment.
When Badri and Karen visited my wife and me in Canada on their way back to Malaysia after receiving his PhD from Dalhousie, I showed him a Malaysian article profiling a young student who had just been awarded a scholarship to Australia to pursue his doctorate in chemistry. The article touted him to be the “first Malay PhD in chemistry” when he would graduate. Badri simply smiled on seeing that piece!
Realizing that he was probably the first Malay PhD in Chemistry, I complimented him and told him that he had beaten the legendary star of Malay College only a few years our senior, the one dubbed “the sharpest mind ever to step foot at Malay College.” Badri was genuinely embarrassed by the comparison. “I didn’t do too well at Malay College,” he demurred.
“Not too well” in Badri-speak meant that he was not the top student. The class that Badri joined at Malay College was among the brightest; it was the first batch of the pure science stream. I remember supervising many of their evening “prep” hours. The class had a reputation for intimidating their supervising prefects; they in turn would groan when assigned. As I was the most junior and had the least clout with my fellow prefects, that chore fell on me disproportionately. It was fortuitous, for I thoroughly enjoyed being with those bright young students. Among his classmates was one Ariffin Aton who would later obtain his PhD in Chemical Engineering and would head SIRIM.
Obviously Badri was smart; he would not have been awarded a Colombo Plan scholarship otherwise or been recommended by his teachers.
Badri too was a man of many firsts, but as with his “first Malay PhD in chemistry” bit, they were all unheralded, and that suited him just fine. That was his style – unassuming. When appointed to senior administrative positions, for example being dean, to Badri that simply meant time away from his lab and students. He was one of the few academics who returned smoothly to his laboratory following a detour in administration.
He was the Foundation Fellow of both the Islamic as well as the Malaysian Academies of Science. Once he gave me a reprint of his latest paper. I had my undergraduate degree in chemistry so I was not lost with the content, but what impressed me was that the paper appeared in a leading international journal.
“You wouldn’t believe the hassles I got over that one,” he volunteered after I complimented him. It turned out that the university was none too pleased with his publishing the paper in English and in an international instead of a local journal!
I am always mindful whenever I write critical commentaries on our education system of individuals like Badri, educators and professionals who gave all they have to their institutions and students despite the huge obstacles and other “hassle factors” they faced daily in their work. The nation would be better off if only those in authority would relent just a wee bit and let individuals like Badri do what they do best.
The most revealing display of Badri’s halus ways and free-mindedness was his ability to sway his recalcitrant supervisors back home into letting him stay in Canada to pursue his PhD after getting his undergraduate degree. Then as now, the policy was that students had to return first and then wait their turn patiently before being sent abroad again.
Badri had other ideas; he was already offered a grant from the Canadians to pursue his doctoral work, all he had to do was get that special dispensation from home. I remember discussing at length with him on the best strategy to pursue in convincing the folks back home into letting him stay.
After much deliberation and with great anxiety, he decided to pursue a reverse psychology approach. It helped that the civil servants back in Malaysia who would be making the pivotal decision were just like Badri, so he could easily put himself in their shoes and understand their psychological vulnerabilities.
So in the most polite and deferential tone Badri wrote a long pleading letter in traditional Malay, together with the obligatory elaborate and profuse salutations expressing his heavy heart and sense of serba salah (dilemma) at having to write that letter, but had to do so merely as a favor requested by his professor. It was his professor’s wish that he (Badri) should continue with graduate work directly into the doctoral program. However, he (Badri) wished to return home as he was homesick and was missing his family and Malay food, especially his favorite budu (fish paste).
When as expected he did not receive a reply, he wrote back again, this time gently reminding his Malaysian supervisor that his professor wanted an answer from him (Badri) soon. This time Badri helpfully added that his professor had heard that Malaysia would soon be opening a second university and would need qualified candidates to staff it. And his professor wanted to contribute to this endeavor by training Badri.
The reply came finally, a few months later when already deeply engaged in his graduate work. “Tuan di arahkan melanjutkan ... ” (“You are directed to pursue further studies...”) Badri was ecstatic. He had outwitted those civil service guys back home.
A few years later I met another Malaysian; he too was a scholarship student but was then residing abroad. I asked him how he did it, thinking it might be a variation of Badri’s move. He replied that he simply absconded; he did not bother to return or in any way communicate with the folks back home. What about his scholarship bond? It seemed that the authorities in Malaysia had lost his file!
I thought Badri was smart, but this character was shrewd. On second thought though, I think Badri would not contemplate simply skipping out. That would not be the Badri I knew.
When you have a free mind as Badri had, it would be easy for you to put yourself in your adversaries' moccasins, as the natives here would put it, and thus figure out their thinking. Once you can do that, you are already one step ahead. That was my lesson from Badri.
My long story on him, apart from being my way of paying tribute to a long dear friend, is to demonstrate precisely this point about a free mind. The other is that when you have a free mind, you can easily focus on your objectives and not be distracted by the current fads. Badri was a scientist right from the very beginning; he had a passion for it, and he remained a true “bench scientist” right to the end. May Allah bless his soul!
Adapted from the author's book. Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2013.
The achievements of such individuals as Ungku Aziz and Raja Petra, as well as the giants in our history as Tun Razak, Datuk Onn and Munshi Abdullah, should inspire us to pursue liberating our minds.
However, should their fame and outstanding accomplishments have the opposite effect, as in making us feel small and thus dissuading us from emulating them, let me cite examples of seemingly ordinary individuals who may not have grabbed the headlines but nonetheless demonstrated free minds in solving their unique problems.
Because of their seemingly ordinary lives, we are more likely to identify with them. There is however, nothing ordinary about their accomplishments or their approaches to problem solving.
There was a student sent abroad to pursue his masters in engineering. Through smarts and diligence, he was soon admitted directly to the doctoral program. He did not bother to tell his supervisor back home for he anticipated a negative response.
His scholarship however, was only for two years, not enough time for a doctoral pursuit. That did not deter him. At the end of the second year he wrote his supervisor back home for an extension, citing a “slight snag” in his studies. He filled his pleading letter with sob stories of the challenges with English and mathematics.
His supervisor back home, familiar with such plights among Malay students, readily extended the scholarship for another year, together with a stern warning to “study harder.” At the end of the third year the student still needed a few more months. So he ignored the ensuing stream of warning letters and instead focused on his dissertation. He completed it just in time to receive that final letter from Malaysia suspending his scholarship.
When he returned with an impressive PhD instead of a mere Masters, far from congratulating him, his supervisor chastised him! “Pandai memandai!” Trying to be too smart! That supervisor complained about having to find another candidate to fill the lecturer post at the local polytechnic that was slated for this student. Meanwhile the newly minted PhD readily found a university position, and thus avoided defaulting on his scholarship bonds.
To make a long story even longer, he was invited to present his paper, based on his doctoral research, at a prestigious conference in America. True to form, his Vice-Chancellor refused to grant him leave, much less fund the trip. The reasoning was that he was far too fresh a recruit to be granted such a privilege. Resourceful as ever, he found a corporate sponsor and traveled on his vacation time.
That young academic is an example of a free mind that dared forge his own path.
Then there was the student who graduated from a top American university. He had of course no difficulty securing a job in America. However, there was the problem of his scholarship bonds.
So at the interview back home, he purposely bombed it. His interviewers were heard muttering how unimpressed they were with American universities and regretted not being able to offer the young man a position. Released of his obligation, the young man could hardly wait to fly back to America.
As the young man would later relate to me, he was not about to pin his future on a man who could not distinguish between Stamford College and Stanford University, regardless of how esteemed his local titles and reputation.
For contrast, consider our third student. He too graduated from an elite American university, with a PhD no less. I asked him what his plans were, and his answer surprised me. He was waiting for instructions from his Vice-Chancellor back home.
I suggested that he pursue post-doctoral work to broaden his research expertise, or work in America to get some valuable experience. Indeed he was offered a lucrative position, enough to pay off his scholarship bonds if need be. However, being an obedient student (Kami menurut arahan!), he patiently waited for instructions from home.
A few years later I visited him in Malaysia; he was unhappy with his lot. His Vice-Chancellor found him keras kepala (hardheaded). That is another of those dismissive terms for a free-minded individual. Too bad that he was not keras kepala when he was in America when he had the opportunity to carve his own future!
This fellow reminded me of another student, described by his teachers as “the sharpest mind ever to set foot at Malay College.” As expected, he excelled abroad and was offered the opportunity to pursue doctoral studies by his university. However, his supervisor back home convinced him of a better plan. So he returned.
To cut a short story shorter, his highest achievement was being director of a matriculation program at a local university. He never did get his doctorate; a bright promise unfulfilled. Alas, his was not an isolated case; I could fill a book with many such sad stories.
The first two students are examples of courageous individuals who dared think for themselves and ignored the commands of their superiors. They are worthy of our emulation. As for the last two, I hope we all avoid their fate not so much for our own selfish reasons but for the sake of our country.
Consider the legendary P. Ramlee. Every Malaysian can hum a few of his songs; his rich voice warms our hearts and his melodies dance in our memories.
He sought to impart his considerable skills and share his vast experience with the music students at MARA Institute of Technology. However, the dean of that institution would have none of it as Ramlee did not have any formal academic qualifications.
Imagine the loss to those young students and in turn our society, all because of the closed-mindedness of that dean. As can be seen, the curse of a trapped mind extends far beyond its bearer.
The worst part was that the dean did not feel at all embarrassed in relating this incident many years later in an article in the mainstream media on the anniversary of P. Ramlee’s death.
That is the tragedy of such a mind; it does not even realize that it is being imprisoned. This dean sports an impressive academic qualification (impressive at least to his administrators), but the “higher education” he acquired did not liberate his mind. It is still trapped, not by steel bars but by a few obscure lines in the university’s rule book.
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2013.
Ungku Aziz and Raja Petra - Exemplars of Contemporary Free Minds
Ungku Aziz and Raja Petra – Exemplars of Contemporary Free Minds M. Bakri Musa www.bakrimusa.com
Hang Jebat and Hang Nadim are but characters in our legends, but
the chronicles of their exploits serve as eternal lessons of what a
free-mind can achieve. Munshi Abdullah and Datuk Onn were giants in our
history, but many especially the young may not have heard of or find
them interesting. So I will cite a pair of contemporary figures as
exemplars of a free mind.
Many know of Ungku Aziz, a man of many firsts. I will not
enumerate them because they are not pertinent to my story. To me, he is
a man whose insight on rural (and thus Malay) poverty is unmatched.
Equally unmatched is our present leaders’ inability or unwillingness to
tap his vast expertise.
I first heard of him as a secondary school student in the
late 1950s while visiting the University of Malaya. There was a lull in
our schedule and we were let loose in the library. Among the stacks of
books there was one that attracted my attention, a thick volume, The Fragmentation of Estates. Below that was the author’s name, “Ungku A. Aziz.”
What drew my attention was of course the author’s name. In
those days it was rare to see a Malay name attached to a book, except
perhaps a trashy novel on jinns or hookers. (It still seems
that way today!) Even though I did not understand a word in the book (it
was a classic socio-economic study of the rubber industry in the early
years of independence), it nonetheless made a huge impression on me.
Here I was a high school student; I had difficulty even completing reading
my much thinner textbooks. Yet in front of me was this thick volume on a
substantive topic written by a Malay. It inspired me! I wondered
whether someday I too could have my name appended to a book of similar
Unlike others who are content merely with cataloging the
ills of Malay society and then dredging up old ugly stereotypes to
“explain” our socio-economic backwardness, Ungku Aziz approached the
problem systematically. He studied poor rural Malay families,
from measuring the heights and weights of their children (indicators of
nutritional status and thus economic level) to recording the number of
sarongs per household – his famous “sarong index” of rural poverty.
One of his many studies debunked the view widely held
(then as well as now, and not just by non-Malays) that we Malays do not
save or respond to modern economic incentives. Indeed a casual observer
would conclude similarly, seeing the small number of accounts by Malays
in financial institutions. And when the British tried to increase the
interest rates of postal savings accounts to encourage Malays to save,
we did not respond as the colonials had expected.
In his studies Ungku Aziz discovered that the reality was
far different. Malays were indeed diligent savers as attested to the
ubiquitous bamboo tabongs in Malay homes. We saved for weddings
and of course for a trip to Mecca, the aspiration of all Muslims.
However, we did not use conventional savings institutions like banks
because of our religious prohibitions against ribaa (interest).
It is a tribute to the genius of Ungku Aziz that he not
only identified the problem correctly (key towards solving it) but went
on to create institutions that would cater to the specific economic
needs of Malays. Thus was born Tabung Haji, a mutual fund-like financial
institution that takes in Malay savings, especially from rural areas,
and invests them in halal enterprises (meaning, no casinos or
breweries). The returns on such investments were rightly labeled as fa’edah (dividends) and not bunga (interest), thus satisfying Malay religious sensitivities.
Today Tabung Haji is one of the largest financial institutions
in Southeast Asia, a tribute to the brilliance of one man, one whose
mind is not trapped by the conventional wisdom and thinking.
There are today many more Malay economists, some sporting
impressive doctorates from elite universities. Thus you would expect a
quantum leap in the number of innovations like Tabung Haji to cater to
the special and specific needs of Malays. Alas this is not the case.
Instead what we have are a plethora of government-linked companies and
similar entities more adept at sucking precious public funds out of
Treasury and then squandering them.
Even Tabung Haji has not demonstrated any innovation
since its inception. No one has carried the ball forward. I would have
thought those eminently trained economists that Prime Minister Najib
brags about being on his team would expand Tabung’s reach, like catering
for Muslims in the region, or offering services beyond Hajj and umrah. I
would have expected Tabung Haji to have its own fleet of aircrafts and
branch offices in every village, not to mention expanding its lending
activities beyond. Tabung Haji should have also long ago driven those
usurious Chettiars and Ah Longs out of business.
As is evident, impressive academic qualifications or
holding an exalted position does not equal or signal a free and
innovative mind. Often times the more impressive your title and position
are, or the degrees you have accumulated, the more beholden you are to
expectations. Your mind is trapped into thinking of only complex
solutions while missing out on the simple, inexpensive and less sexy
The reverse is probably even more true, that is, those
without exalted titles or positions are freer and unafraid to express
themselves. Raja Petra Kamarudin best exemplifies this. Many do not know
or care who the chief editor of The New Straits Times or any
of the other mainstream media is, but almost all have heard of and more
importantly pay attention to Raja Petra. A reflection of his fame or
notoriety (from the government’s view) is that he is recognized simply
by his initials. He is truly transformational, to use Najib’s favorite
and over-used word, and a phenomenon.
A scion of the Selangor royal family, RPK could have
easily followed in the footsteps of so many of his peers, living it up
courtesy of the generous royal civil allowance. Instead he became a
successful entrepreneur, a genuine one in contrast to hordes of the
ersatz variety that plagues our community. Now retired from his
business, he devotes himself to his wildly popular and highly
influential website, Malaysia-Today.
His first presence in cyberspace was in 1995, the dawn of the
digital age, with his rather unimaginative “Raja Petra’s Homepage.” At
that time he was one of the few who dared write uncomplimentary articles
on the government. He was also among the first to predict the impending
split between Prime Minister Mahathir and his then deputy, Anwar, at a
time when the former was “110 percent” behind the latter. RPK sensed the
maneuvering of Anwar’s underlings eager to replace Mahathir’s.
Then like so many Malaysians who were deeply offended by the
government’s treatment of Anwar, RPK started his “Free Anwar” webpage.
When Anwar was finally freed, far from losing a cause and withering
away, Pete, as he is known by those who know him well, started
Malaysia-Today with the avowed purpose “to teach Malaysians how to
think, to dissent, to question, and much more,” as he once told a BBC
interviewer. And with that, RPK blossomed and Malaysia is the
There are many other news portals and Internet sites
including those of the established media, but none matches Raja Petra’s
Malaysia-Today in terms of readership and influence. The government is
only too aware of this, hence the frequent attempts at blocking the
site. The authorities even resorted to arresting him under the ISA but
the man was unfazed. The last time he was held, the government had to
quickly release him unconditionally as he threatened a hunger strike. To
this day, he remains the only ISA prisoner to be released
The Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s free-mindedness
while being imprisoned blossomed his mind to craft those wonderful Pulau
Buru quartet novels; Raja Petra’s led to his unconditional release.
Pramoedya said it best. When asked how he could have
managed to craft such wonderful works while being imprisoned under the
most inhumane conditions, responded, “I create freedom for myself!” That
is the awesome power of a free mind!
Munshi Abdullah – Exemplar of a Free Mind M. Bakri Musa www.bakrimusa.com
Malay society has no shortage of formal leaders. First we have the
hereditary leaders, from the sultan down to his various lowly chieftains
including the local datuk lembaga (lord admiral). This pattern of leadership has a long history in our society.
Then came the religious leaders, of more recent vantage,
introduced in the 15th Century with the coming of Islam to the Malay
world. More recently and fast gaining a pivotal role, are political
With modern political institutions, especially democratic
ones, we should expect a more frequent emergence of fresh leaders. This
is not necessarily so. China is far from being a democratic society yet
its People Congress gets more infusion of fresh talents with each
party’s election. Compare that to the United States Congress, the
self-declared exemplar of representative government. You are more likely
to get a new member of the old Soviet Politburo than you are to get a
new member of US Congress.
UMNO, the premier Malay political organization, is on par with the old Soviet Politburo in nurturing new talent.
Despite modernity, both hereditary and religious leaders still have a strong hold on Malays.
The problem with both types of leadership is that they
are by nature conservative; each successor maintaining and replicating
the pattern set by his predecessor. With hereditary rulers, this could
be the matter of genetics or familial upbringing. With religious
leaders, the pattern of training or learning. It is the rare student who
would deviate from his teacher’s path to blaze a new trail. This is
especially so with the Islamic tradition of learning where the emphasis
is on taqlid (to follow or to imitate).
Stated more succinctly, do not expect much innovation or expressions of free-mindedness from such leaders.
Human society however, is complex. One does not need to have a
formal role as leader, or be anointed as one, to have an impact on
society. Often such de novo leaders, unburdened by tradition or expectations, exhibit remarkable free-mindedness and can be transformative.
One such leader in Malay society was Munshi Abdullah.
Today he is held in low esteem and dismissed as a brown Mat Salleh (an
epithet for Englishman) by our revisionist historians and
self-proclaimed champions of Ketuanan Melayu. They even ridicule his “impure” Malay heritage.
These present-day Malay nationalists, still trapped in the
relics of their old anti-colonial mental prison, are perturbed that
Abdullah’s free-mindedness let him collaborate with the colonialists.
Abdullah even translated the bible! Today he would have been labeled a murtad
(apostate) and sent to a re-education camp – Islamic style. Worse, he
could be imprisoned without trial for an indeterminate period. Imagine
Bless the old colonial English for letting Abdullah be who he
was. Mushi Abdullah should also thank his lucky stars that he was born
during colonial times and not in today’s Malaysia.
To the free-minded Abdullah, working with the colonialists
of his time meant the opportunity to expand his intellectual horizon
and learn of the advances of the West. Most of all he wanted to
understand what made the British tick. He did not ignore but instead
nurtured his innate human nature of being curious and inquisitive.
When the British invited him to visit a colonial warship for
example, he was not a mere casual visitor. He recorded his experiences,
complete with drawings of the contraption, and then challenged his
readers to wonder what was it about British minds that made them invent
such awesome machines. If the miracle of steel did not astound the
visitor, ponder the fact that the British could even make it float!
Today, more than a century and a half after his death, we are
still benefiting from Abdullah’s writings and wisdom. We do not remember
who the sultan was at Abdullah’s time, but we remember Abdullah through
his written words.
Today we sent many of our leaders and also would-be leaders
abroad, a few to the great universities of the world. What do they
Abdullah’s free-mindedness enabled him to appreciate the
advancements of the British, as with their warships and books. He was
not at all embarrassed to acknowledge that his own people were far
behind. To Abdullah, there was nothing to be ashamed about that; he
looked upon it as an opportunity to learn from and catch up with them.
Far from shunning the British he worked closely with them, leading many
today to contemptuously dismiss him as a colonial hired hand.
Yes, he was handsomely compensated for teaching our language
to the English, but he was also providing a valuable service them. Now
those colonials could better communicate with and understand our people.
Abdullah learned much from the British. No, he did not learn
how to forge steel or make it float, but he learned something much more
profound. He saw how those colonials communicated with each other, their
style of writing, and their penchant for documenting their experiences.
Abdullah too began doing that, writing about his travels and
experiences. And he did it in the style of the British – direct,
factual, and with the minimal of formalities. With that, Abdullah
transformed Malay literature.
Up until then Malay writings, as with our letters to the
sultans and high officials, were heavy on formalities, with rigid highly
stylized forms of salutations that would fill the entire page and often
obscure the message. Abdullah initiated the direct and factual style of
writing, emulating the British.
As for Malay literature, up until his time it had been nothing
more than the stylized repeating of phrases and proverbs, facts
liberally mixed with imagination and conjecture, and written in the
indirect third person as in the various Hikayats. Abdullah was the first to write directly and with a personal (first person) perspective, as with his Hikayat Abdullah.
Such are the powers of those with a free mind; they
brazenly pave new paths so others may follow. What our Malay community
needs now is not a new culture, another “mental revolution,” or even
greater mindless assertions of Ketuanan Melayu but more of those individuals with free minds as exemplified by Munshi Abdullah, especially among our leaders.
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2013.
There are as many successful leadership styles as there are organizational entities. More important than the leadership style or type of leaders is the dynamics of the interactions between leaders and their followers.
We can intuitively appreciate that the talent required to be a platoon commander is very different from that of a head of an academic department. Even for the same organization, you can have many successful personality types and leadership styles.
Likewise, a leader who is excellent during a certain period of time would be downright dangerous in another. Winston Churchill was a great leader of wartime Britain. He inspired his people when they were being bombarded daily by the Germans. Come peacetime however, the British rejected him. Their rejection of him did not mean that they were not grateful for his brilliant and inspiring leadership during the war. The British felt that they needed a new kind of leader now that the country was at peace.
Had Churchill continued to lead Britain after World War II, the ensuing Cold War would not have remained cold for long. His uncompromising stand against communism, reflected in his haughty Iron Curtain speech, would have plunged the world into another great war very quickly.
Leaders must have a free mind to adapt, grow and learn with the inevitable changes in their followers and society. This is particularly true in a plural society, or one rapidly changing as a consequence of urbanization and globalization. Malaysian society is all those.
In my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I likened leaders to wings of a plane. Wings define the limits of performance of the plane, so too does a leader to her people. The earliest plane had double wings – the biplanes – to give the greatest lift at the low speed that their small engine could deliver. Later with powerful engines and consequent greater speed, that design exerted too much drag and soon yielded to single wings fitted with slats, slots and ailerons to adjust the shape of the wing to be more curved for maximal lift at low speed, and then retracted for less drag at cruising speed. With even more powerful jet engines and faster speed, this design again proved inadequate and gave way to backswept wings. Supersonic rockets need only winglets.
Likewise with society, it requires different leaders depending on its stage of development and circumstance. It is the rare individual who could successfully transit from one pattern of leadership to another. The wisdom of the British during the immediate postwar period was their recognition of this insight. As for most leaders, even brilliant ones, they stay long after their leadership style has proven ineffective with the changed circumstances.
Stated differently, really wise leaders know when their time is up.
Tunku Abdul Rahman was the perfect leader immediately before and following independence. At that time what Malaysians needed most was stability and reassurance. Tunku’s personality and leadership style amply provided both. Malaysians had good reasons for being wary of ambitious and charismatic leaders; neighboring Indonesia’s Sukarno was a constant ugly and painful reminder.
I discern at least three patterns of leadership. One is the pyramidal or military style, with one commanding general at the top, followed by a few subordinate generals, then many colonels followed by many more majors and lieutenants all the way down to the enlisted soldiers. This is strictly top-down, command-and-control organization.
This leadership is best suited for an emerging society where its members are not sophisticated or well educated, or one long oppressed through colonialism. This was MacArthur’s leadership of Japan right after the humiliation of World War II; it was remarkably effective and efficient. This was also the leadership of Tun Razak following the May 1969 riots; it was also highly effective.
In a developed society such leadership is needed during times of crisis, as in America in the aftermath of 9-11 terrorists’ attack. This should have been the leadership during the Katrina devastations of 2005. That it was not, contributed to the unnecessarily widespread and prolonged anarchy following that tragedy.
The second style is the coaching model where the coach has absolute power over his players. He is not answerable to them rather to elements outside the team: the owners and fans. However, if the team does not perform, it is the coach who will get fired first.
While the coach is the most powerful person in the team, he is not the most well known or even the highest paid. The players often get star billing and are paid many times more. The skill of a coach leader lies in his ability to merge the various talents in his team towards a common goal: beating the opposing team.
Whereas the military model of leadership is pyramidal, the coaching style is more like a schoolhouse block, with a long block on either side of a central and only slightly higher administrative tower. It is remarkably flat and can be very efficient under the right circumstances.
The third model is that of a symphony conductor. Like the sports team, here too we are dealing with a group of accomplished individuals. In such circumstances, a leader does not need to shout in order to be heard; the followers will respond more to her actions than words.
While an orchestra can perform without a conductor, it needs a skillful one in order to shine. The leadership pattern is akin to a bicycle wheel, with the conductor in the center connected by spokes to the musicians in the periphery. They in turn are connected to each other via the rim. Those musicians have to communicate not only with the conductor in the center but also with each other peripherally.
When the load on the rim is not balanced, the spin will not be smooth and the consequent vibrations could break the machine. In an orchestra, too loud a bass would drown out the string section. A creative conductor would carefully choose his repertoire so as to highlight his orchestra’s strength.
This orchestra-style leadership is seen in think tanks, academic departments, and research laboratories. All the participants (followers) are like the musicians – talented and skillful in their own right. They could perform on their own without a leader. In the orchestra model, the total is more than just the sum of the individual parts.
There is something else remarkable about the orchestra model. That is the lack of leadership struggle among the followers. The first violinist does not conspire to take over the podium; she is satisfied with being the best violinist.
Malays have long emerged from our feudal ways although we are still trapped by their many elements, such as our excessive deference to authority figures. We are also now far better educated and well informed. We are definitely more open to the world and actively engaged in foreign trade and travels. The authoritarian military style of leadership would certainly push us back.
It is questionable whether we are ready for the symphony or coaching model. We are in a transition mode; we need to be pushed away from the top-down command-and-control military leadership towards a flatter coaching or symphony model. My preference is for the orchestra model. For that we have to ensure that our citizens are more critical and fully informed.
I would accept an authoritarian coach model provided the leader acknowledges and respects our individuality and utilizes as well as channels our talents towards an agreed-upon goal. My acceptance of an authoritarian streak in a leader carries a major – a very major – caveat. That is, if she fails us in our common mission, then she ought to be fired right away, as with the coach. Therein lies the difficulty.
A leader is not a zookeeper, content with keeping his animals healthy, well fed and able to procreate. That was Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew brand of leadership; he was an excellent zookeeper. This style however, is appealing only when you are hungry and desperate. Once you pass that stage (an achievement not to be belittled) you yearn for something more enlightened. After all, a lion penned and has to be fed is no lion no matter how loud its roar is; a pampered overgrown cat, maybe.
Each of us is a leader and follower at the same time. I am the leader of my family and of my surgical team, while at the same time I am a follower in my mosque and in the greater scheme of things. Today’s students are mostly followers except for the few who are already leaders of their students’ organizations. Even the others who are not, they are still leaders in some capacity, to their younger siblings, cousins and nephews, for example. With Allah’s blessings, some will be parents and thus leaders of their respective families. A few might go beyond and even lead their enterprises or even society.
Leaders should encourage their followers to be critical and unafraid to challenge their leaders’ views. They should go beyond merely tolerating to actively encouraging and embracing criticisms. Leaders should never equate questioning and criticism with impudence and disloyalty. Likewise, followers should never hesitate to question their leaders and not seek refuge behind some misguided notion of loyalty, politeness, or patriotism.
A large segment of the Malaysian community is sufficiently advanced and sophisticated to resent the authoritarian model of leadership as represented by UMNO's Najib. Another segment, almost exclusively Malay, is still stuck in its feudal ways and for whom Najib represents its ideal leader.
Malaysian society being such, until that second segment becomes a minority, or with more Malays being represented in the first segment, the nation is stuck with a feudal authoritarian leadership of Najib where blind loyalty trumps everything and excuses a whole lot of sins. That UMNO's leadership is far from being the orchestral model is demonstrated by the fact that it is continuously plagued by leadership struggles among the next echelon of leaders.
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
leadership qualities needed in a society during times of great changes
and uncertainties are very different from those required in one that is
static. Malaysia today faces many great challenges but is blighted with
a leadership more suited for a static feudal society.
Today's Malaysia is a complex, plural society. The unwary could easily
be misled by official figures and general consensus that may apply to
or describe one segment of society but may well be the very opposite for
There are at least two Malaysias. One is
exclusively Malay, dominated by UMNO and PAS; the other, predominantly
but not exclusively non-Malay. The differences between the two extend
beyond cultural values, socioeconomic status, and general worldview. The
former is feudal, xenophobic, and servile towards authority; the latter
is modern, aligned with the global mainstream, and views government
more as the problem than the solution.
statements like deteriorating local schools apply only to government
ones and attended by the first group. International schools are doing
very well. As for Chinese schools, the increasing number of Malay
parents enrolling their children there speaks of the quality. Both
schools are the preferred choice for the second Malaysia.
The Malaysia of Onn and Razak may have been much less complicated
but no less divided, nonetheless both leaders exhibited qualities of
what James McGregor Burns called "transforming leadership." Both were
great not only because of their exceptional personal and leadership
qualities but because they appeared at a time when those qualities were
most needed – Datuk Onn following the adoption of the Malayan Union
Treaty, Tun Razak in the aftermath of the tragic 1969 riots.
It is said that what makes a great leader great is circumstance.
That was certainly true with Onn and Razak. Malaysians were lucky that
the sterling attributes of the two shone through at those particular
junctures in our history.
During times of stability (or
stagnation) it does not really matter who is the leader as things are
essentially on automatic pilot. For a while Malay society, like all
feudal societies, remained unchanged for generations. So it did not
matter who was the sultan; the peasants’ lives would remain the same
regardless. You could put a monkey in the palace, and life in the
kampongs would remain unaffected.
during those times have minimal impact on the governed. In fact during
feudal times it would have been better to have a monkey in the palace as
then it would not bother the natives to extract expensive tributes.
Besides, monkeys' demands could easily be satisfied with bananas, not so
It is only during times of great change that
leadership is most crucial. It is also during such times that the
strengths of a culture would shine or its weaknesses be exposed, as with
the Japanese reaction to the tsunami of 2011 and the Americans' to
Katrina of 2005 as discussed in an earlier essay.
genius of both Onn and Razak was precisely their ability to leverage the
very elements of our culture that had imprisoned us (or so we thought)
to instead liberate us mentally. They did not stand on the podium and
berate us for the presumed weaknesses of our ways and nature. Instead
they utilized to maximum effectiveness those very same qualities of our
culture that others deemed wanting to bring about profound, positive and
permanent changes in us.
Consider the Malay cultural
attribute of unquestioned obedience to rulers. Onn leveraged that to
maximal effect in mobilizing the Malay masses in a very public display
of loyalty that effectively prevented those sultans from leaving the
palace in Kota Baru to partake in the installation ceremony of the first
Malayan Union Governor. Those sultans were essentially “CB-ed,”
confined to barracks, or in this case, the palace.
Likewise Tun Razak made full use of our cultural trait of obedience to
authority to make his decisive moves. He did not consult anyone or hold
public forums before imposing martial law and suspending parliament. He
did what he had to do, and did it decisively. Order and peace soon
Even in a stable society with no external
forces or natural calamities to disrupt its equilibrium, substantive
change can still be achieved if it is lucky enough to be endowed with an
exceptionally enlightened leader. Meaning, a gifted leader can
transform even a placid society, although the need for effective
leadership is never more critical than when a society is in
disequilibrium or facing major challenges.
first scenario where the society is stable and has the cultural trait of
excessive deference and unquestioning loyalty to its leaders. If
perchance it were to be miraculously endowed with an enlightened leader,
someone who accepts and indeed encourages criticism of his leadership,
then the masses would readily emulate him and that society would be
transformed in short order.
Take China; it long endured
the stifling rule of communism under Chairman Mao who led that huge
nation from one giant leap to another straight into the abyss. The
Chinese too have a long cultural tradition of unquestioned loyalty to a
central figure. Before Mao there was the long line of emperors.
Thus even when the unimposing, uncharismatic and uninspiring Deng
Xiaoping took over, he was able to radically change direction for the
whole nation. He did it not through his personal qualities (being
unimposing, uncharismatic and uninspiring would not get you far in any
society) but by leveraging to maximal effect the Confucian tradition of
“follow the leader.” In one generation Deng transformed China.
This tradition of unquestioned loyalty to a leader is typical not
just of China but all developing (particularly Asian) societies. I go
further and posit that it is this mindset that keeps those societies
behind. On the bright side, it is precisely in those societies where the
role of a leader is crucial in emancipating the people, as dramatically
demonstrated by Deng’s China.
It is within us,
individually as well as a society, to topple our coconut shell. The Arab
spring of 2011erupted without any help from the outside, nor did it
have any recognizable leadership. It was spontaneous. Wael Ghonim, a
Google executive, a geek effectively, would be the closest individual
who could be identified as the leader in the Egyptian uprising. In
Tunisia, it was the unemployed hawker Mohamed Bouaziz, may his soul rest
in peace, who triggered the revolution.
Of course with
proper leadership the process of toppling the shell would be greatly
facilitated and the collateral damages minimized. Also with identifiable
leadership, the movement would not risk being subsequently subverted.
The transition would also be faster, smoother, and less traumatic, as
with the “Quiet Revolution” in Ireland and Quebec of the 1960s and 70s
With the possible exception of Tunisia, the
Arab Spring failed precisely because there were no identifiable strong
and enlightened leaders emerging to lead and channel the rising
aspirations of the people. To be sure, there were many strong leaders
appearing but they exhibited the bad old tendencies of their
predecessors. They were consumed less with fulfilling the demands of
their followers, more on tightening their grip on power and on avenging
the wrongs of their predecessors.
exploiting the soft values of their faith Islam, where being forgiving
and to forgive are highly valued, those new Arab leaders resorted to and
expanded on their primitive cultural ethos of the
enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend, except this time degenerating to a more
lethal and protracted friend-of-my-enemy-is-now my-enemy. At least with
the former you could potentially create new friends; with the latter,
only more new enemies.
Like his late father Tun
Razak, Najib too is very much aware of the Malay cultural propensity of
blind loyalty to their leaders. Unlike the Tun who leveraged that
quality to good purpose to end the May 1969 race riots quickly, his son
exploited that very same communal trait to extract support and indeed
blessing for his corrupt and chauvinistic ways!
To Najib's brand of leadership, loyalty is to be exploited to insulate,
if not excuse, his incompetence and corruption. Honest enlightened
leaders on the other hand would never even contemplate betraying their
followers' trust and loyalty
Razak the father solved a major crisis; Najib the son will trigger one, if Malaysians do not stop him.
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.