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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

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.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Deepening Malay Polarization More Dangerous Than Inter-Racial Divisions

Deepening Malay Polarization More Dangerous Than Inter-Racial Divisions
  1. Bakri Musa
Over 46 years ago a largely Chinese group of demonstrators celebrating their party’s electoral victory triggered Malaysia’s worst race riot. Last Wednesday, September 16, 2015, an exclusively Malay rally in predominantly Chinese Petaling Street of Kuala Lumpur triggered only the riot police’s water cannons.
            What flowed on Petaling Street last Wednesday was clear water, not red blood as in 1969. There was also minimal property damage (except for loss of business) and no loss of life. That is significant; that is progress.
            Malaysia has come a long way since 1969, the current shrill race hysteria notwithstanding. However leaders, political and non-political, Malays as well as non-Malays, are still trapped in their time-warped racial mentality of the 1960s. They still view the nation’s race dynamics primarily as Malays versus non-Malays.
            That is understandable as the horrific memories of that 1969 race tragedy, as well as the much earlier and more brutal Bintang Tiga reign of terror, had been seared into the collective Malaysian consciousness, permanently warping our national perception.
            The challenge today is less the risk of inter-racial conflagration of the 1969 variety, more a Malay civil war similar to what is now happening in the Arab world and what has happened on the Korean Peninsula. Last Wednesday’s red-shirt rally illustrates this point.
            While the earlier and visibly non-Malay Bersih 4.0 demonstrations had considerable Malay support, including from such luminaries as Tun Mahathir and National Laureate Datuk Samad Said, the exclusively Malay red-shirted Himpunan Rakyat Bersatu drew condemnations from many Malays, leaders and otherwise.
            The head of the Malay NGO Group of 25, Noor Farida, contemptuously dismissed the red shirts as “rent-a-mob crowd.” As a former diplomat I would have expected her to be, well, a bit diplomatic and try to heal the division, not add to it.
            The fact that these supposedly enlightened Malay leaders saw fit to condemn and not try to at least understand the aspirations and frustrations of those red-shirted protestors underscores my contention.
            Make no mistake. Ethnic and racial conflicts are still a tragic reality today in much of the world, even in the enlightened West. Witness the reaction in Western Europe to the current flood of non-European refugees. Only a few months ago America went through another of its all-too-frequent wrenching race riots in Ferguson, Missouri, a century and a half following Reconstruction and over half a century after the adoption of the Civil Rights Act.
            In the Middle East, the Jews and Arabs are still at it. Nonetheless and to put things in perspective, more Arabs have been killed in modern times by fellow Arabs than by Jews, or the Jews and the West combined.
            That observation underscores the lethality of intra-racial conflicts. The present undercurrent of Malay xenophobia however, blinds us to this new emerging and far more dangerous reality.
            This peril is amplified and abetted by the glaring deficit in our community today of a buffering body or mediating mechanism to bridge and heal the divisions within us. While our traditional ethics and culture had served us well in the past, our pseudo or culup modernity has destroyed those pristine values.
            Consider that when the British imposed the Malayan Union Treaty with the acquiescence of our sultans, Malays (except for our sultans of course) were united in opposing it. Our grandparents expressed their disagreement and displeasure with our sultans in our traditional halus (subtle) ways – by demonstrating our loyalty publicly. That mass display prevented our sultans from attending the inauguration of what would have been the first British Governor of Malaya. The protest was so subtle that our sultans missed the message. Bless the British, they did not.
            Back then we were blessed with “towering personalities” like Datuk Onn. His courage led him to defy his own sultan in the tradition of Hang Jebat, to the point that he (Onn) was once labeled a derhaka (traitor) and banished to Singapore.
            Today we are bereft of such smart, strong and honest leaders. Instead we are cursed with an abundance of the pseudo-towering variety. Like Hang Tuah of yore, they are corrupt, incompetent, and obsessed with sucking up to their superiors, the sultans as well as sultan wannabes. These leaders do not bring us closer; they would rather divide us so as to maintain their positions.
            Najib personifies this type of leadership.
            One expects our commonality of Islam to bind us. Far from it! Islam and its institutions in Malaysia have failed miserably on this front. Instead of bringing us together, Islam divides us, mocking our Koran and the teachings of our Prophet.
            Our muftis could not even agree as to what is halal and haram. Our government-issued ulamas could not say enough kind words on UMNO leaders, even blessing their corrupt deeds, all in the name of Islam! Meanwhile those aligned with PAS would have us believe that not voting for PAS would doom us to eternal hellfire.
            In many villagers there are separate mosques for PAS and UMNO followers. Even funerals and marriages have been boycotted in the name of Islam.
            This religious fissure goes deep. The intolerance of a hijab-clad Muslimah for her tudung-free sisters goes beyond attire.
            There are other equally dangerous fissures. There are those who consider English fluency an asset and strive hard to acquire that for themselves and their children. Others view that as denigrating our national language and culture, an act of treason no less. Again, that reflects the profound differences in our worldview.
            These fault lines are fast converging. Given their proper alignment and timing, they could all explode simultaneously, with catastrophic consequences to all, Malays as well as non-Malays.
            I am less concerned with the differences between non-Malay yellow-shirters and Malay red shirts, rather between yellow-shirted and red-shirted Malays. The latter division is becoming increasingly irreconcilable and more dangerous. Yet they share some common elements beyond race and faith. Both recognize and value the rights of citizens to demonstrate publicly and or otherwise petition their grievances to the government.
            Yes, both have a lot to learn about public demonstrations. They are not alone. Even the University of California is still grappling with the issue of where to draw the line between freedom of speech and intolerance.
            Barisan, specifically UMNO, must appreciate and address the concerns of Bersih if it hopes to win the next election and then govern without much harassment. Likewise Pakatan, specifically DAP, must not dismiss the apprehensions and frustrations of the Himpunan Group. Those red-shirted Malays may be crude in expressing their frustrations nonetheless their concerns are legitimate.
            The shrill offensive cries of Tanah Melayu and Balek Tongsan are but emotional outbursts of those who feel marginalized and helpless. Their emotions preclude them from seeing beyond. If all the pendatangs were to leave and Malaysia to become exclusively Tanah Melayu, who would fix those Mat Rempits’ motorcycles, defend them in courts, or sell them smart phones at affordable prices?
            Bersih and Himpunan need to appreciate each other’s positions, and then help solve or at least ameliorate those differences. To Himpunan, Bersih’s criticisms of the UMNO government are seen as belittling Malay leadership specifically and the Malay race generally. To Bersih, if only the government and UMNO leaders were to be a wee bit more competent and a whole lot less corrupt, the plight of Malays generally and those red-shirters in particular would be much better.
            It does not take much effort to appreciate the other side’s point of view. I was impressed with the recent incident at Bayan Lepas when a redshirt leader came to disrupt a Berseh 4 gathering. The quick and counterintuitive thinking of the organizer had that individual address the gathering. Thus instead of confrontation, there was communication. That is the sort of gestures that need to be done and encouraged.
            For Malays, we first need to build bridges, not dig trenches within our own community. As for the offensive cries of pendatang and Balek Tongsan, Zunar’s latest cartoon encapsulates my point well, and with lots of humor. It depicts a Mat Rempit begging an Ah Peck to fix his (Mat’s) motorcycle.
            Intra-Malay fissure is not just a Malay problem. Malaysia cannot be stable if its largest racial entity is fractured.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Same Reality, Different Perceptions

Same Reality, Different Perceptions
Najib’s RM 2.6B – Generous Donation or Grand Corruption?
M. Bakri Musa

In the 1950s the Americans were alarmed with the leftist-leaning and shrill anti-Western rhetoric of Indonesia’s Sukarno. To neutralize him, they concocted a scheme to blackmail the man by portraying him as other than a true nationalist.

            So on one of his many visits to America the CIA secretly set-up Sukarno to be in the company of high-priced hookers, and then clandestinely filmed him in his frolics. Sukarno must have felt that he was already in heaven with some of his 72 “virgins!”
            The plan was to screen snippets of the tape in the movie houses of Jakarta. Surely in pious Muslim Indonesia such scenes would enrage the audiences such that they would take to the streets demanding Sukarno's downfall.

            Thus far everything went according to the well-rehearsed script, one that would be repeated in different places and with different players.

            Imagine the horror of the local CIA station agent when the audiences instead roared their approval of their President!

            “Yeah! Itu jantan kita!” (That’s our stud!) they roared as Sukarno, like the bunny, powered by the Eveready battery, kept going and going (or coming and coming)! “It’s about time one of us gets to screw them, they did that to us for years!”

            The Indonesians could not conceal their pride in their leader’s virility, perhaps fantasizing a part of themselves in him.
            My long preamble here is to put forth a simple proposition. While the reality may be the same, the perceptions may be radically different. The world and many Malaysians may view Najib’s RM2.6 billion “donation” as corruption on a grand scale, but to red-shirted Malays and their UMNO Putra patrons, it is but a measure of an Arab’s high regard for their man.

            Pardon my comparing Najib with Sukarno. Najib is no Sukarno in leadership talent or oratorical skills; he is in priapic proclivities.

            It is not coincidental that Najib’s spinmeisters would have the donation come from the Middle East, the land of the Prophet. To Muslim Malays, the Arabs and their desert are blessed. In Saudi Arabia even the flies on your food are halal. As for the ensuing diarrhea, well, that’s Allah testing you.

            This truism – differing perceptions of the same reality – extends in nature. A rotting carcass is revolting and haram but to vultures, a heavenly gift. Does the fastidious diner have moral superiority over the scavenger vulture?

            Dispensing with the relativism, let’s examine Najib’s bonanza from a practical and more consequential perspective. Najib claims that the money was reward for his “exemplary” leadership, and to ensure that it be continued. More directly stated, it was to fund his re-election.

            Thus one fact or precedent is now established. Malaysian leaders and elections can be bought, or at least influenced by foreign money and individuals. That is significant, and pivotal. Today, a generous Arab; tomorrow, the CIA! Next could be China or Singapore. Before long, a non-Arab Middle Eastern state! With the ringgit fast becoming worthless, topping the RM2.6 billion should be easy.

            Besides, money is not the only means of influence peddling. The Americans and Singaporeans in particular are more sophisticated. They are not crude, careless, or stupid like the Arabs as to write a massive check or drop off a bundle of cash.

            Consider that many children of Third World leaders end up at top American universities despite not having super SAT scores. Similarly many Third World leaders are invited as visiting fellows and professors. They lap up the accolades! If those refined tricks fail, there is the White House visit or a presidential golf game.

            Likewise with Singapore; Malaysians covet invitations to address institutions there, a reflection of its influence. The Republic today is far different from the early days of Lee Kuan Yew when its leaders took every opportunity to snipe across the causeway. Today Singaporeans are active partners in the development of the southern corridor. They choose their partners prudently however, preferring for example, the Johore royal family. The same shrewd calculation applies as to whom they invite to address them.

            China too is learning fast. The Chinese are now partnering with the Johore royal household to develop some swamps at the tip of the peninsula. With the sultan on your side, there won’t be too many intrusive questions.

            It’s worth reminding that not too long ago the same royal family sold off the entire island of Singapore. With this propensity to sell, what else would they dispose of next?

            Yet another perspective to Najib’s bonanza is to analyze its opportunity cost. Granted we do not know how or where he spent the money; Najib is still trying to spin that one out. Nonetheless even a devalued RM2.6 billion could buy you both Australia’s Anna Creek and the Texas King Ranch (world’s and America’s largest respectively), with plenty left over. And if you run both outfits in other than the manner of Sharizat family’s National Cattle Feedlot, there would be plenty of jobs and halal meat for generations of Malaysians and others.

            Back to nature’s vultures, beyond gluttony they do provide a useful service, as with cleaning up the environment and preventing the spread of diseases. They deserve our respect. Najib and his vultures on the other hand pollute our social environment and corrode the integrity of our institutions through their corrupt deeds. They deserve our contempt.

            Apart from the lucky few around Najib who benefit directly from him, what purpose would there be for the others to view his loot as reward for his performance instead of an act of grand corruption?

            I can understand (though condemn) Najib’s ministers and UMNO warlords for being his ardent cheerleaders. They could not otherwise afford those luxuries; these characters have no marketable skills or professional accomplishments. Their flair for “sucking up” is appreciated only by insecure and untalented superiors. To these unabashed supplicants, even Najib’s crumbs are worth scrambling for. Absent that they would be back to their old kampong mode.

            Those whom I feel most sorry for are the young red-shirted pemudas (youths) and pink-frocked puteris. Surely their maruah (reputation) is worth much more than just the few hundred ringgit for their free trips to the capital city, plus their complimentary colorful attires and perhaps a sarong pelekat or two.

            I would support them if they were to demand their share of the booty. Not as direct handouts as that would quickly end up in the hands of those retailers at Low Yat Plaza but to create enduring programs to train them as plumbers, mechanics, and electricians, or to improve our schools and universities.

            They could then benefit from those initiatives and do something meaningful with their lives, quite apart from contributing to society and having a bright future. That would be a legacy worth bequeathing to their children and grandchildren. Those values and sense of self-worth are worth cultivating. Itu maruah Melayu tulin! (That’s respect to a genuine Malay.)

            Maruah shapes our perception of reality. Our maruah says that when we receive money or favors for which we are not entitled to or have not worked for, that is corruption, not donation. Those who claim otherwise have no maruah.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

European Intrusions Into The Malay World

European Intrusions Into The Malay World
M. Bakri Musa
[After last weekend's mass protest against the nation's entrenched corrupt and incompetent leadership, I reflect on a moment in our colonial history. If Merdeka has any meaning it is this - our freedom to express our views. We have to remind ourselves and our leaders of this, and often, lest it be forgotten. As we celebrate the nation's 58th anniversary of independence, I salute those brave Malaysians of Bersih 4. May you succeed!  Your courage humbles and inspires me.]  

The Europeans entered the Malay world a few centuries after the arrival of Islam. First were the Portuguese in 1509, followed by the Dutch and finally the British.

      Unlike those early Muslims, the Europeans came not to trade, at least initially, but as explorers during their Age of Discovery. Only when they saw the abundance of the rich natural resources of the land did they go beyond mere exploring.
     With their primordial form of capitalism of the heartless and exploitative variety so well captured in Dickens’ many novels, it did not take long for their greed to manifest itself and be all-consuming. Like all capitalists, they were obsessed with domination, and that quickly expanded beyond mere trading. Colonial aspirations soon followed.
     Preoccupied with commerce, those ancient Portuguese were not interested in converting the natives though that was the penchant with old-world Catholics. Yes, there were priests hauled along to bless their mission, if nothing else. Consumed as they were with profits they could not be bothered with the salvation of the heathens. Either that or those Europeans were aware of the fate of the crusaders and knew better than to try and convert the already Muslim natives.
     The Portuguese did try, and suffered the consequences. Their brief stay in Malacca was characterized by frequent warfare with the natives there and elsewhere in the region. It spilled over even to faraway China where the Portuguese also received a far-from-warm welcome. The Spaniards had better luck in the Philippines.
     Capitalism was a far more powerful cause and master than spreading their Catholic faith, the crude and bumbling initial attempts by the Portuguese excepted. Those Europeans were not at all interested in the natives except when they interfered with trading. Then they were removed in the most brutal and efficacious way.
     Thus began European colonial rule, initially more as a scheme to increase trade and less at empire building. Colonization was an extension of their capitalistic and  exploitative culture.
     It is in the nature of humans to carry things to extremes, to test the outer limits. So it was with the capitalistic exploitation by the early Europeans. Slavery was very much an integral part of that, limited only much later when it shamed their Christian sensitivity. That dampened their activities somewhat, only to be resurrected under a new guise, the banner of the “White Man’s burden.”  In their fervent belief, Almighty God had imposed upon them the divine mission to salvage the lot of “Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child!” to quote Kipling' s poetry.
     With their ethnocentric worldview and confident of their own sense of God-given superiority and entitlement, those early Europeans were not in the least interested in learning the ways and cultures of the natives or in any way interacting with them.
     As a consequence, the impact on and reaction from the Malay society to the arrival of the European traders could not be more different than with the earlier Muslim ones. While Malays readily welcomed the Muslim traders and embraced their faith, treating them more as enlighteners, in striking contrast our ancestors had nothing but contempt for the European colonizers. No doubt the feeling was mutual.
     A measure of contempt for those European traders-turned-colonizers, especially the Dutch, can be gauged by such expressions as a “Dutch deal.” Legend has it that an early Dutch trader was bargaining to buy a piece of land from a native. “Only the area covered by this piece of buffalo hide!” the foreigner pleaded.
     The trusting native readily agreed; after all he could do without such a small plot of land. Imagine his horror when the trader began slicing the hide into a long thin strip and then began laying it over the property and claiming everything within it! Not even the most crooked lawyer could have thought of such a sly scheme. In Malay culture such a deed was considered duplicitous if not outright fraudulent and a breach of faith. To the Dutch and perhaps also in a few other cultures, it was a shrewd if not brilliant move.
     If you visit Malacca today you can still see the distinctively red-colored museum and other buildings, remnants of the earlier Dutch settlement. It is said that the red color is due to the permanent stain of the betel nut juice those ancient natives contemptuously spitted on those buildings, a measure of their scorn for the Dutch.
     While those early Dutch traders obviously thought they had the better end of the deal – they did, at least in the short term – in the long-term, well, those red buildings are perpetual reminders of the natives' contempt for them.
     There are others. The best is reflected in the expression, Bini Belanda (Dutch wife), referring to the long white fluffy bolster found in the bedrooms of Malays, only good to rest your legs on and the occasional cuddle when you are lonely, but not much else! Then there is Orang Belanda (Dutch people), the proboscis monkey with its distinctive large white nose.
     Both Islam and Christianity are known for their proselytizing zeal. The ancient Muslim traders by not focusing on converting Malays but only on being good Muslims in their trading activities and other dealings with the natives ended up being effective propagators of their faith. Meanwhile the Catholic Portuguese and Protestant Dutch, otherwise and elsewhere famed for their equally fanatical zeal at conversions, forceful if necessary, ended up merely being the butt of cruel Malay jokes.
     The credit should not all go to the Muslim traders or the blame entirely on those early European colonizers. The large and as yet unexamined question is why did Malays react warmly to and be so welcoming of the Muslim traders but became downright hostile to the later European traders? Here I attribute the differences in attitudes and behaviors between the Muslim and European traders to account for the varying receptions of the natives.
     Viewed from another perspective, what is it about Malay society which before the coming of Islam was so welcoming of foreign people and ideas while after adopting Islam became so hostile to the Portuguese, Dutch, and other foreigners.
     There is a price - and not a small one - to be paid later for that general hostility to foreigners and foreign ideas when Malaysia fell under a less malevolent colonial power. I will explore that in my analysis of our responses to British intervention in our affairs.
     This antipathy towards foreigners and foreign ideas still persists to this day. This insularity is a major handicap for us in facing up to the challenges of and seizing the opportunities afforded by this era of increasing globalization.
Next: Soft Spot For The British
This essay is based on the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Post-Najib Unity Transition Administration

Post-Najib Unity Transition Administration
M. Bakri Musa
Despite the bravado, Najib Razak’s days as Prime Minister are numbered. Last weekend’s massive Bersih 4 demonstrations are only the latest and most public expressions of citizens’ disgust and contempt for him and his ilk.
     I hope Najib is spared the ignominious fate of many corrupt Third World leaders. The visceral hatred for him not just as a leader but also a person is palpable. The sentiment is worse for his obscenely ostentatious wife. Judging by the extraordinarily tight security around him these days, Najib too is aware of this.
     If Najib were to suffer a Marcos, or worse, a Ngo Dinh Diem, that would plunge Malaysia into an abyss; likewise if Najib were to execute an Assad. Assad is still in power but I shudder to imagine the images of his last days, as surely that would come. I saw enough gory details of Gaddafi’s.
     Regardless of Najib’s fate, prudence calls for Malaysia to be ready for a post-Najib administration. Those arguing for patience have it wrong. Nothing in the constitution precludes the removal of a sitting prime minister between elections. It has been done.
     If Najib’s successor were to be chosen in the manner of recent past, meaning, by UMNO power brokers, that would only ensure another mediocre pick. Najib is worse than Abdullah (who would have thought that possible!); rest assured that Najib’s successor chosen thus would be even worse. This Ahmad Zahid character, Najib’s current deputy, is fast living up (or down) to that low expectation.
     Mahathir has apologized for his role in picking Najib, and Abdullah before that. It is not productive to continue blaming Mahathir; he retired over a decade ago. Malaysia should be able to recover from his blunders by now. At least the man recognizes his error and is trying to rectify it. He succeeded in ridding us of Abdullah; let’s hope he would be too with Najib.
     It is not enough to dump just Najib. His entire cabinet too has to go, plus half a dozen top heads in the permanent establishment. To redress Najib’s legacy of endemic corruption, I propose granting temporary amnesty to corruptors who confess. To discourage future such acts, I propose a permanent body to scrutinize all gifts and public contracts awarded to the top 100 officials. They would also have to declare their assets annually to this body.
     Anything less would condemn Malaysia to “business as usual.” It cannot afford that.

Transition Prime Minister and Unity Cabinet
Najib’s successor should be chosen through consensus by the parties now in Parliament. That would be the only way to get a unity leader. That individual would of course have to be ratified by Parliament. As UMNO has the largest number of representatives, it is only right that the Prime Minister should be a current UMNO MP. His cabinet however, should comprise nominees of all parties.
     The new Prime Minister and his ministers should commit to three stipulations. One, they should not be candidates in the next general elections; two, give up their party positions (if they have any) in the interim; and three, agree to stay out of government for at least a year immediately following their tenure.
     Reduce the cabinet to about a dozen ministers, as with Tunku’s original team back in 1955. The current bloated one is inefficient, designed less to pick the best candidates more to bribe compliant and none too bright supporters. Former Parliamentary Accounts Committee Chairman Nur Juzlan tasked with investigating 1MDB, now a junior minister, is Exhibit A.
     The first stipulation would ensure that ministers focus on their cabinet responsibilities and not be sidelined with jockeying to be candidates in the next election. Without this stricture those new ministers would begin their next political campaign right away, mocking the unity theme of the cabinet.
     The second – decoupling cabinet appointments from party positions – could prove to be a worthy precedent for future administrations. The duties of a minister are onerous enough without the added burden of party obligations. This stipulation would also widen the talent pool beyond career politicians.
     Najib’s current ministers have to go with him. They have either explicitly or implicitly by their silence endorsed Najib’s corrupt ways. They do not deserve to lead the nation. Firing them would impress upon new ministers that while they may serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister, their ultimate paymaster and thus clients are the citizens.
     One standout candidate for Prime Minister is Tengku Razaleigh. He commands instant respect at home and abroad. Untainted by the many sordid UMNO scandals, he is also highly regarded by the opposition as well as ordinary citizens. At age 78 we can believe him when he says that he would not stand in the next election, as he informed Najib last week. He is robust physically and mentally. No other candidate comes close to Razaleigh.
      If reluctant leaders make the best ones, then the Tengku is the embodiment of that principle. With his accomplishments he does not need yet another accolade, especially now that the prime minister’s post has been soiled.

Fire Key Leaders in the Permanent Establishment
One least-noted but very revealing aspect to the present 1MDB scandal is the less-than-admirable to downright despicable performances of many heads in the permanent establishment.
     Bank Negara Governor, hitherto distinguished by her sterling professional reputation, was reduced to saying that her duties were done with the handing in of her report on 1MDB to the Attorney General. She was not in the least interested on whether her findings would be acted upon, using the Jamaican excuse, “It’s not my job, mon!”
     She felt no compulsion to protect the integrity of her institution. She also failed in her obligation to the public, her ultimate paymaster.
     It gets worse. Chief Secretary Ali Hamsa, the top civil servant, announced the retroactive retirement of Attorney-General Gani Patail while he (Gani) was in the final stages of investigating Najib’s scandal. Not to be outdone, Hamsa’s new appointee as AG, Apandi Ali, announced even before being sworn in that Najib was cleared of any wrongdoing!
     If you want to bodek (suck up) at least do so in a credible way so as to spare yourself and your master needless embarrassment. In case the point is missed, Apandi, a retired judge, was a former state UMNO treasurer. A political hack, essentially.
     Meanwhile the number one and two at the Anti Corruption Commission (MACC) chose to be on elective medical leave in the midst of the crisis. To top that, Inspector-General of the Police (IGP) Khalid Bakar made himself the subject of international ridicule when his request to Interpol for the arrest of the Sarawak Report editor was rebuffed. In an unusual departure, Interpol asserted that its Red Alert is meant to nab terrorists and dangerous criminals. The smack to the IGP’s face was heard around the world.
     The IGP tried to keep that rebuff secret. The first blunder was bad enough, but a second one so soon! Sheer incompetence and lack of professionalism personified.
     At a minimum Chief Secretary Ali Hamsa, IGP Khalid Bakar, MACC Chief Abu Kassim, and new Attorney-General Apandi Ali should be fired. They should be prosecuted for obstruction of justice with respect to the 1MDB investigation.
     There are many capable Malaysians who could replace those four, and others. However, with citizens now so deeply polarized, it is unlikely that any local replacement could command the confidence and respect of the populace. Thus the new administration should initiate a global search to get the best talent without regard to nationality.
     An important task for these new appointees would be to groom their local successors, to impress upon them the importance of protecting and enhancing the integrity of their institutions. They should not be handmaidens to their political superiors. This is especially critical now as our public institutions, even religious ones, are hopelessly corrupt and politicized.
     Consider that Najib was embarrassed enough to withdraw his previously arranged address to an international conference on anti-corruption. The urbane and sophisticated audience would laugh him off. Not so at local mosques. There he was in his long white jubbah a la the Grand Ayatollah, Najib leading a congregational prayer with the compliant local media in full force with cameras on hand. Next the man would go for umrah and announced that he had a vision that the RM2 billion “donation” was rezeki, and the donor a descendant of the Prophet!
Samuel Johnson had it off; religion, not patriotism, is the last refuge of scoundrels, at least Malay-Muslim ones.

Amnesty for Corruptors and Asset Declaration
Corruption is now endemic in Malaysia; it is the norm at all levels. The only reason Najib’s RM 2 billion “donation” raised a raucous was the sheer colossal amount (even in today’s devalued ringgit) and the utter brazenness of the man.
     It is hard to gauge the extent of or aggregate loss from corruption. Its corrosive consequences are of course beyond quantification, from collapsed buildings endangering their occupants to watered-down academic standards depriving the young their rightful opportunities.
     One suggestion would be to grant amnesty to encourage corruptors to come forward. That would give some insight as to the extent of the blight as well as its infinite variations. There is no limit to human ingenuity in disguising corruption, from friendly “wagers” at golf games to the funding of Hajj pilgrimages. Nothing is sacred to the corrupt.
     Amnesty would also create a prisoner’s dilemma between the corrupting parties that could potentially be exploited. If one side confesses and the other does not, you now have the evidence to prosecute the other party.
     To reduce future opportunities for corruption, there should be a permanent body to scrutinize all gifts and contracts given to the top 100 public officials and their immediate families. This 100 would include the sultans and governors, cabinet and chief ministers, top civil servants and heads of major statutory bodies, as well as Federal Court judges. They would also have to declare their assets annually to this body.
     There are many excellent models of such bodies out there; there is no need to reinvent the wheel.
     Meanwhile Bersih 4 and other protests against Najib must continue until the man is out. However, dumping only Najib without the other needed changes would only condemn Malaysia to business as usual. The nation can ill afford that.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Lessons From Our Encounter With Islam

The Lessons From Our Encounter With Islam
M. Bakri Musa
The smooth assimilation of Malays into Islam was the result of both “down-up” and “up-down” dynamics. The average Malay peasant in his or her interactions with the ancient Muslim traders saw the value of this new faith. This message then spread laterally among the other villagers and later upwards to the nobility and ultimately the sultans. They too saw the merit of this new religion and that acceptance trickled down to the masses. The result was the quick transformation of Malay society.

     Today in the retelling of the arrival of Islam to the Malay world, there is not a dissenting voice. All agree that it was a positive development, for the faith as well as for Malays. We also agree that our culture adapted well to Islam.
     Those sentiments have more to do with the human tendency to romanticize the past, especially one perceived as being glorious, rather than a true reflection of the reality. We spare ourselves from looking more critically at our past for fear that we would discover something that could blight that pristine image and sweet memory.
     Yet in all human endeavors nothing is pure white or all black. The noblest deeds often have a sliver of tarnish if we were meticulous and fearless in our scrutiny. At the other extreme, even in the horror and depravity of a Siberian prison camp one could still discern sparks of compassion and humanity, as Dostoyevsky noted in his House of the Dead.
     So it was with the coming of Islam to the Malay world. Those early Muslims came not to proselytize, though that was a well-established tradition with the faith, rather to trade. In that respect those Arab and Indian Muslim traders were no different from the subsequent European explorers who came for our spices.

     However, the natives were so enamored with the way those Muslim traders conducted themselves – with honor, piety and honesty – that soon their ways rubbed off on our ancestors and they too became Muslims. They, as a culture and community, were free minded enough to recognize a better way and did not hesitate to incorporate it as part of their own.
     Our ancestors were enthusiastic converts. They willingly absorbed this new faith based on its evident merit, and did so with an open mind. They accepted its teachings with complete trust.
     They could not however, claim to be diligent learners. If they were, they would have discovered a much bigger and richer dimension to Islam beyond the spiritual and metaphysical. After all this great faith had emancipated the ancient Bedouins and caused them to give up the more gruesome aspects of their culture like female infanticide and the utterly destructive “eye for an eye” sense of justice.
     Our forefathers would have also discovered the rich and varied intellectual traditions of this great faith, from the rationalist Mutazilites to the mystical Sufis. Islam, far from being a rigid and uncompromising faith, is malleable and adaptive, which explained its remarkable vibrancy and tolerance as demonstrated in such disparate places as South Asia and Iberian Europe.
     Those Arabs and Indians came to the Malay world in search of trade.  Spreading their faith was secondary, if at all, and only in so far as it would facilitate their trading. The primary pursuit of all traders was their customers’ satisfaction, not salvation. Traders want their customers to return.  Whether they would end up in heaven or hell is of little interest to those traders.
     Our ancestors missed this important but subtle point. They were so obsessed with their fate in the Hereafter that they missed learning the equally important but worldly trading activities of those earlier Arabs and Indians. Our forefathers forgot or failed to discern the elementary Islamic principle that our religious and worldly obligations were (still are) related if not the same. Earning a living, as with trading, and serving the needs of your fellow human beings, also a function of trading, are but part and parcel of ibadah (worshiping).

      Serve your fellow man and you serve God, exhorted our Prophet Mohammad (May Allah be pleased with him). That's what trading does. The prophet was himself a trader; he explicitly permitted and indeed encouraged trading even during the Hajj to reinforce the point that earning a living and worshiping Allah are but two sides of the same coin. Both are far from being incompatible.
     Thus while our ancestors learned much about Islam as a theology, they failed to acquire the skills of trading from those Muslim traders. Then consider the books that were translated. They were heavy on legends and the spiritual aspects of Islam but precious few on trade, financing, and the setting up of enterprises. Even on the theological aspects of Islam, our ancestors restricted themselves to learning only a very narrow interpretation of a particular fiqh (school of thought).

     Our ancestors were not at all curious of the vast richness of the intellectual heritage of Islam. Had they been, our ancestors would have learned that those ancient Muslim luminaries beginning with Al Kindi and on to Ibn Khaldun a few centuries later also wrote on such worldly topics as astronomy, physics, medicine and sociology. To them, knowledge was all encompassing, with no artificial differentiation between the spiritual and secular, or worldly and "other-worldly."

     Our sultans too were not diligent learners. Otherwise they would have discovered that the Caliphs of the Abbasid dynasty, for example, had their Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) where they gathered the leading scholars and learn from them. Instead, our sultans of yore (and even today) were content to be in the company of their gundek (concubines).     
     Malay society did benefit in one significant area. As Syed Naguib al-Attas noted, “… [T]he most important single cultural phenomenon directly caused by the influence of Islamic culture … was the spread and development of Malay language as a vehicle not only for epic, romantic and historical literature, but even more so for philosophical discourse.” This was one of the paramount factors that displaced the hegemony of Java in the region, Al Attas concluded.

     With the adoption of the Arabic jawi script, Malay culture transited from the oral to the written tradition. Whenever that happens to a society or culture, it is a significant advancement. We are indebted to those ancient Muslims for that precious gift.
     This unwillingness of our ancestors to learn about Islam beyond the theological carried a heavy price. We did not benefit as greatly as we should have from this encounter with Islam.

    Had our ancestors been more encompassing in exploring the vastness of the intellectual and other traditions of the Arabs and of Islam, as those folks in Iberia did, and studied the varied richness of this new faith, its tradition of hosting a wide spectrum of opinions and its great scholars, we could have triggered our own renaissance, our own Nusantara (Malay Archipelago) Andalusia as it were, in the fine tradition of the Iberians.

     We could have then, like those ancient Arabs who learned prodigiously from the Greeks, do likewise with the Arabs. Those early Arabs (unlike their modern counterparts) had no hesitation in translating Greek works and learning from Greek philosophers, even avowedly atheistic ones.  
     Instead our ancestors were content with being ardent but passive followers rather than engaged and active contributors. Had they done more of the latter, there would be no limits to the height of our achievement while at the same time enriching this great faith. Instead they were satisfied with being merely takers and followers; they did not contribute to nor enrich the faith.
     Medieval Europe discovered Islam through Andalusia only a few centuries before the faith landed in the Malay world. Unlike Malays who were interested only in the spiritual aspects of the faith and perhaps some accompanying philosophy and literature, the Europeans were interested in everything the ancient Iberian Muslims had to offer, especially their sciences and mathematics. And those early Muslims had much to offer in those areas.
     The subsequent European Renaissance and the continent’s exit from its medieval culture owed much to the contributions of those early Muslims. Yes, the Europeans also translated the Koran and the various religious treatises of ancient Muslim scholars, but unlike those in the sciences, mathematics and philosophy, they were done less for learning but more for demonstrating the “superiority” of Christianity and to “protect” the flock from an alien faith. Thus the ensuing translations were clearly jaundiced, presumably to spare the Europeans from yet another reformation.
     Imagine the intellectual emancipation of Malay society had our ancestors been more diligent in learning from those ancient Arabs the full breadth of the intellectual endeavors of Islam beyond merely the religious, and translated the great mathematical and scientific texts of the ancient Arabs as those Middle Ages Europeans did!  Our society could have gone on to make our own unique contributions and trigger our own Nusantara Renaissance.
     Even to this day while we have an abundance of Malay translations of religious texts and Arabic legends, no one has yet seen fit to translate such seminal tomes as Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimmah (An Introduction [to the study of History]), Ibn Rashid’s Kulliyat (Generalities [of medicine]), or al-Khwarizmi’s treatise on Algebra.

     While Middle Age Europe eagerly learned from Andalusia, the Europeans did not become Muslims. Only a few centuries later, Malays became Muslim through their encounter with those Muslim traders but we did not learn much from them.  This irony, as yet unexamined, baffles me. 
     It is this myopic take on Islam that prevents Malays from fully benefiting from this great faith. Like monkeys, we are content only with imitating, and then only the superficialities of the faith and the trappings of Arab culture while missing the core or essence. That was true then and it is still true today.
Next: European Intrusion Into The Malay World

This essay is adapted from the author's latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, 2013.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Arrival of Islam as a Momentous Event in Malay Culture

The Arrival of Islam as a Momentous Event in Malay Culture
M. Bakri Musa

The arrival of Islam was “the most momentous event in the history of the Malay archipelago,” to quote Syed Naquib al-Attas. It came not through the point of the sword but peacefully through trade. Islam did not land in a cultural and religious vacuum as Malays were already steeped in Hindu and animist traditions. Nor did the Arabs come to emancipate our ancestors; there was no messianic zeal or even an inclination to engage in their salvation.

      Those Muslims came only to trade; there was no intention to dominate or colonize. Their Islamic faith and the prevailing Malay culture interacted through gradual and mutual accommodation. The result was that “the local genius of the people shone through” in the melding of the two, to quote Farish Noor, respected scholar and frequent commentator on Malaysian affairs.

     This was vividly illustrated with my matriarchal Adat Perpateh. It coexisted peacefully with traditional male-dominated Islam, demonstrating a brilliant and workable synthesis of the two. Malays did not repudiate our traditional ways to become Muslims, and Islam was not adulterated to accommodate Malay culture. Both were remarkably malleable to and adaptive of each other.

     This accommodative attitude is best captured by the Minangkabau wisdom, Adat menurun, syarak mendaki (‘custom descended, religion ascended’), in reference to the belief that the Minangkabau descended from the highlands, the heartland of the culture, to meet Islam as it ascended from the coast. Both Islam and Malay were elevated as a consequence of the melding.

      Expressions like Adat basandi syarak, syarak basandi kitabullah (Customs based on shari’a; shari’a on Koran), and the more practical, Syarak mengato, adat memakai (Sharia prescribes, adat subscribes) attest to this grand accommodation. The sociologist Taufik Abdullah expressed it best, “The genius of Minangkabau is to synthesize contradictions harmoniously.” There were certainly contradictions real as well as imagined between Islam and traditional Malay culture, but our ancestors took them in stride and with composure.

      It is said that a Minangkabau baby is fed white rice and red chili early so it could learn at a very young age to tolerate opposites. Later we would go beyond mere tolerating to actually relishing contradictions. Thus as adults we could not do without our rice and sambal (chili paste).

     Of course all these happened several centuries ago, long before the advent of “purist” Islamists. Today these purists would condemn any accommodation of the faith as bida’a (adulteration). Little wonder that Malays of that religious persuasion are today busy rewriting history to obliterate our legitimate pre-Islamic existence. They would like us to believe that prior to the arrival of Islam, Malays were cultureless and devoid of any spiritual values, and that our history began only with the arrival of Islam.

     Thus instead of learning and benefiting from the wisdom and ingenuity of our ancestors in synthesizing contradictions harmoniously, these later-day Islamists are obsessed with “purifying” and "cleansing" our faith of what they deem to be “un-Islamic” and “primitive” elements.

     These purists obviously have not learned anything from our recent history. They should remember that the last time this “cleansing” effort took place it triggered the Padri War from 1821-37 in West Sumatra. That conflict succeeded only in further tightening of Dutch colonial rule.

     Today there is little risk that the Malay world would ever be colonized again, our leaders’ fear of neo-colonization notwithstanding. Colonialism is no longer cool, except in such odd places like Chechnya and Tibet. However there is a fate far worse than being colonized, and that is being left behind by a rapidly modernizing world.

     This preoccupation with Islamic “cleansing” distracts Malays, especially the idealistic younger set looking for a cause and meaning to their life, from making their rightful contributions to society. It is far too easy for their religious zeal to degenerate into something sinister, as with futile “jihads” against phantom enemies of Islam.

     A notorious and tragic example was the “Bali bomber,” Dr. Azahari Husin. Smart enough to be the top student at Malay College, Kuala Kangsar, he was later selected to pursue his engineering degree in Australia and subsequently, doctoral work in Britain.

     By all accounts he was a competent academic and an inspiring teacher. He could have made a significant contribution by training future engineers, quite apart from being a much-needed role model especially for young Malays. Somewhere along the line he acquired a zeal for “purifying” the faith. Instead of making a meaningful contribution, he ended up leaving behind a trail of death and destruction. A needless tragedy, for him, his family, and society!

     At the community level, this increased emphasis in religion has resulted in, among other things, our national schools taking on all the trappings of a religious institution. As a result non-Muslims are abandoning the system in droves making these schools all the more insular. Malays too are abandoning the system but for the very opposite reason – these schools are deemed not religious enough! As a consequence religious schools now mushroom all over the country.

     Unlike religious schools in America, those in Malaysia are heavy into religion, paying lip service to such important but deemed “secular subjects” as science and mathematics. Then we wonder why local companies cannot get enough qualified Malay applicants.

     This emphasis on religion has resulted in the massive expansion of the bureaucracy associated with Islam just to employ these otherwise unemployable Malay graduates. This further encourages Malays to enroll in religious schools, feeding this non-productive cycle. Today thousands of Malay talents are diverted not in producing something for the economy but in the destructive pursuit of keeping citizens along the “straight and narrow path,” as these zealots see it.

     If this were to continue, we could expect a modern version of the Padri War, with the Malay community in conflict with each other and be left behind. This time there would be no outside force coming to mediate or rescue us; we would be left destroying each other while the world bypassed us.

     The need for Malays and Muslims today is not to further divide us by heaping useless labels as liberal or conservative Muslims, or needlessly dividing us into tudung-clad versus the well-coiffured. As so eloquently stated in the Koran, true piety lies not in turning your face to the east or west (as in praying) rather one who spends his substance on his kin, the orphans, the needy, and the wayfarer.

    In order to do that we first must have the substance, that is, be productive. This obsession with the external manifestations of our faith distracts us from being so and thus contributing to the betterment of our society.  

Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

Next: The Lessons From Our Encounter With Islam

Sunday, August 09, 2015

The Ture Measure of a Culutre

The True Measure Of A Culture
M. Bakri Musa

The true measure of a culture is how well it prepares its members to sudden changes and challenges, especially when those are unanticipated or imposed from the outside. That different societies react very differently is obvious.

       Consider the March 2011 tsunami that demolished the coastal areas of Northern Japan. Thousands were killed and billions worth of properties damaged, with whole villages and families wiped out. Compare the reactions of the Japanese to that tragedy of August 2005 when Katrina hurricane devastated the southern coast of United States.

       The differences in reactions could not be more profound. Today only a few years after the tragedy, Northern Japan is almost fully recovered. In Louisiana they are still entangled in massive lawsuits, and the finger pointing has not yet stopped. Both Japan and America are developed societies, so we cannot account the difference to socioeconomic status, only to culture.

        Then there was the Southeast Asian tsunami of Christmas 2004 that devastated western Sumatra and elsewhere. In terms of human toll, that tragedy was a universe beyond Katrina.

         International relief workers involved in both tragedies observed how remarkably quickly those Indonesians resumed their "normal" routine. When hundreds of thousands of your countrymen had perished and whole towns and villages vanished, swept into the deep blue Indian Ocean, normalcy is hard to fathom. "Normal" is not quite the appropriate term. Nonetheless only a few months after the tragedy, school children were resuming their classes and singing their national anthem as they gathered underneath the shade of the lone surviving angsana tree.

         You would expect that to happen in America, a nation with vastly greater resources and much superior manpower and administrative machinery at its disposal, not Indonesia. Yes, America's industrial might was able to produce hundreds of portable homes and classrooms on short order, alas they were left sitting on empty lots to this day. The displaced residents are still unable to return home.

          Again, only culture can explain the difference in the two reactions.

          The Southeast Asian tsunami was also instrumental in ending the generations-long Aceh civil war. The iconic image of the tsunami devastation was the lone mosque that stood serenely in a sea of destruction. The sophisticated would attribute the catastrophe to shifts in ancient tectonic plates in the deep ocean floor, but to the science-illiterate Indonesians it was Allah sending them a powerful message. The Aceh civil war ended soon after.

          That is the supreme value of a culture; to help us react in positive ways to events that are beyond our control. That is the only true measure of a culture.

          Today in discussions on the "Malay problem," specifically the lack of economic development, much is made of the supposed deficiencies of our culture. To me that is not a valid measure of the value of a culture. America is the most economically and socially developed society on Earth, yet it could not handle the Katrina tragedy. We have to stop blaming culture as the explanation for everything especially when we are having glaring deficits elsewhere, as with our corrupt and incompetent leaders.

           Besides, there are just too many and obvious examples to debunk such a simplistic "explanation" as culture. Consider the Koreans. Those in North Korea share the same culture (including religion and language) as their brethren in the South. Today those two societies and countries could not be more different not only socio-economically and but also in mindset and many other ways.

           Incidentally, the Koreans would serve as a ready example to debunk those who would resort to blaming our "genes" or biology to explain our backwardness, the pet "explanation" offered by the likes of Mahathir.

           Then there is the current fascination and exaltation of Confucian ethics and system of values to "explain" the rapid rise of East Asia, first with Japan and later South Korea. What is conveniently forgotten is that this same culture was responsible for the monumental tragedies on the Chinese mainland during much of the 20th Century, and the militaristic rise of Japan and the consequent catastrophe inflicted on much of Asia during World War II.

            So quit blaming culture to "explain" Malay backwardness. As a mental exercise, imagine if Malay leaders (specifically those in UMNO as they have been in charge for over half a century) are not corrupt, and all the funds and resources that they have hogged unto themselves had been spent on improving our lot as with building better schools and having properly trained teachers and professors, we would be much better off today. We would also be spared those sordid financial scandals, from the Bank Bumiputra debacle of yore to the current 1MDB mess.
            Consider the opportunity cost of the current RM2 billion "donation" to Prime Minister Najib Razak. Had he spent that money to endow a university in honor of his late father in the fashion of the industrialist James Buchanan Duke (Duke University), imagine the good that would do to Malaysia. For one, the Razak name would forever be held in high esteem for not only being an exemplary leader of the country but also for producing a son with such farsightedness and philanthropy.  For another, Najib would have been spared the current humiliation of just another corrupt Third World leader who could be bought with a mere billion or two in devalued Malaysian ringgit.
            At another level, if only Malaysian leaders had been a wee bit competent in addition to being honest, there would be no limit to the nation's achievements. 
            This week, Najib and his wife were guests at Singapore's 50th anniversary. When Tun Razak and the senior Lee were Prime Ministers of their respective nations, the ringgit and Singapore dollar were on par in value. Today with their sons in charge, the ringgit has fallen to a third of the Singapore dollar, and continues to fall.
             The devaluation of the ringgit is at least quantifiable, not so the devaluation of the nation's maruah( respect).
            Getting honest and competent leaders has nothing to do with culture. Nor are you born corrupt or incompetent; rather you become one.

            There is yet another reason to be weary of those who resort to blaming culture to "explain" everything about a society. Strip off the sophistry and the underlying racism is exposed in all its ugliness.

             In the following few chapters I will recap the three defining moments in Malay culture: the arrival of Islam upon our shores, the subsequent series of European intrusions into our world, and the path we had chosen towards independence. I will examine how our culture had prepared us for those tumultuous changes. As is apparent we are still here, and that says something about the value and endurance of our culture. In the final analysis that is what counts; all else are but footnotes.

             There are critical and valuable lessons to be learned from those transformational experiences that are applicable to our current challenges.

Adapted from the author's latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

Next Excerpt:  Arrival of Islam as a Momentous Event in Malay Culture