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.
My Ramadan Prayer for Malay Salvation - Get Rid of JAWI & JAKIM
My Ramadan Prayer For Malay Salvation – Get Rid of JAWI and JAKIM M. Bakri Musa www.bakrimusa.com
brings exuberant displays of piety among Malays, consumed as we are
with personal salvation. There is however, little reflection on our
salvation as a society.
Hellfire or the ultimate punishment for us as a society would be to be
dumped into the rubbish bin of mankind, dependent on the charity of
others while living in a land so blessed by Almighty. The irony, as well
as the fact that others thrive in Tanah Melayu, would make the punishment that much more unbearable.
We have ruled this country for over half a century; all instruments of
government are in our hands, the sultans as well as prime ministers are Malays,
and the constitution is generous to us. Yet we remain in a sorry state,
reduced to lamenting our fate and blaming the pendatangs.
This lamentation is heard with nauseating frequency, coming from sultans and prime ministers to pundits and kedai kopi
commentators. Seizing on that, some (and not just non-Malays)
gleefully trumpet their own sense of superiority or denigrate the Malay
culture and character.
chief minister of Trengganu, a predominantly-Malay and oil-rich state,
asked how could we who have lived here for centuries, control the
government, and are in the majority feel threatened by the immigrants.
The fact that he posed the question reveals how clueless he was in
addressing it. Alas his is the caliber of leadership we have been cursed
The issue is not who is
in charge rather what those charged with leading us are doing. The
Pakistanis and Zimbabweans are in charge 100 percent and have no
immigrants to contend with, yet their people suffer. The Chinese in Hong Kong thrived under British rule while their
brethren on the mainland starved and perished under Mao’s Cultural
Revolution and other “Great Leap Forward” follies. Being led by your own
kind is not always a blessing.
As for immigrants, the French, Germans and Americans are much richer and
in full control of their nations yet they feel imperiled by poor and
unarmed Africans, Turks and Mexicans respectively.
Leaders betraying their followers’ trust or natives feeling threatened by immigrants is not unique to Malays.
In an earlier book, Malaysia in the Era of Globalization,
I likened the dilemma we face today to that of the Irish of yore. The
Irish then felt overwhelmed by the minority English who dominated just
about every aspect of life in Ireland except of course the Catholic
Church. The Church meanwhile held a tight grip on the Irish, dictating
everything from what they could do in their bedrooms to the schools
their children should attend.
As the church banned contraception, they had huge unruly broods, with
the fathers busy rebelling or drinking. If there were ambitious Irish
parents who dared send their children to the much superior English
schools instead of the lousy church-run ones, they risked being
excommunicated. More Irish left Ireland than stayed.
Substitute Islam for Catholicism and non-Malays for the English, and we
have our current mess, except that we are not emigrating en mass. As
for the Irish blight of alcohol and fecundity, we have drugs and HIV
Ireland today is
very different nation. The Irish are no longer emigrating and the country hosts
many IT giants. Ryan Air, the Dublin-based discount airline, once
attempted a takeover of venerable British Airways.
We can learn much from the Irish, their recent economic setbacks
notwithstanding. We can begin by choosing enlightened leaders, meaning,
those who can crystallize the problems and then craft sensible solutions
instead of endlessly extolling the mythical values of Ketuanan Melayu or mindlessly quoting the Holy Book.
Ireland’s transformational leader Sean Lemass began by clipping the
powers of the Church. He removed schools from its control and allowed
contraceptives. He lifted censorship so the Irish could read dissenting
opinions and view on their television sets the world beyond their
kids studied science and mathematics instead of reciting catechism. With
family planning the unruly messy Irish brood was replaced by a more
wholesome and manageable one.
We have our share of potential Lemasses but we do not nurture or elect
them. Our leaders instead are consumed in a destructive and
dysfunctional dynamics of triangulation, with one element attempting
alliance with the second to neutralize the third. Earlier, Mahathir co-opted the religious to take on the third – the sultans.
Today’s weakened political leadership emboldens the sultans to re-exert
themselves by aligning with the ulamas. Seemingly progressive Perak’s
sultan gives free rein to his Taliban-like mufti while Kelantan’s is
more imam than sultan, enrapturing Malay hearts. Elsewhere sultans could
not find enough ulamas to heap royal honors.
These sultans and politicians have yet to learn a crucial lesson. The
Islamic tiger, once ridden, is impossible to dismount. You would be
lucky if it would not take you back to its den. Meanwhile you have to
endure where it wants to go, and right now it is headed for ISIS.
Only the emergence of other pillars of leadership could break this
dysfunctional triangulation. A potential source would be NGOs; BERSIH’s
considerable impact attests to this. Another would be for “towering”
Malays to be assertive, especially those not tainted by politics,
religion, or royalty. Consider that cartoonist Zunar and Laureate Samad
Said have more impact than the much-touted Group of 25 “eminent” Malays
comprising retired senior civil servants. For a Malay to reach the top
in the civil service is no achievement; it would be for a non-Malay.
Thus those 25 “eminent” Malays, despite or perhaps because of their
fancy royal titles, are not effective role models or catalysts for
Barring disruption of
this destructive triangulation or the emergence of a local Lemass, there
is not much hope except to pray. However, as per the oft-quoted
Koranic verse, Allah will not change the condition of a people unless
they themselves do it (approximate translation). Our Prophet Muhammad,
s.a.w., advised us that we must first tie our camel securely and only
then pray it does not escape.
Pray we must, but first we have to get rid of JAWI, JAKIM and hordes of similar expensive agencies. I could tolerate them as public works programs for otherwise unemployable Malays but those authoritarian and far-from-authoritative government-issued ulamas are intent on controlling our lives a la the Irish prisests of yore.
I would then divert those funds, as well as the
billions in zakat so generously donated by our people, to improve our
schools and universities. Make
our religious schools and colleges more like those in America. Catholic
schools like California’s Bellarmine, and universities like Indiana’s
Notre Dame produce their share of America’ scientists, engineers and
entrepreneurs. They attract outstanding students and faculty from other
Had that former chief
minister dispensed with his Monsoon Cup and ostentatious crystal mosque
and instead used the funds to improve his schools, he would have found
the answer to his question.
Unlike my earlier books, in Liberating the Malay Mind I adopt a narrow approach, focusing only
on Malays. Some would counter that Malaysians are now at a stage when we should
consider ourselves Malaysians rather than Malays, Chinese or Ibans. Thus we
should seek an approach applicable to and suitable for all Malaysians. I agree,
up to a point.
does not have to be particularly perceptive to note the obvious and significant
differences between the races beyond how we look, dress and what we eat. If
there are those obvious differences in such simple things, imagine our
differences on more substantive matters, like what we value and aspire to.
mindful of our differences does not mean ignoring our commonalities rather that
we should be cautious as to the possible variations in how we react to policies
and initiatives. We may all aspire to “life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness,” but those concepts mean a whole lot of different things to
economics. Most of it, as Steven Landsburg observed in his The Armchair Economist, can be summarized in four words:Humans response to incentives. The rest is
commentary. Incentives matter, but what constitute incentives vary considerably
example I used in an earlier book to illustrate this central point was of the
novice priest sent to preach among the Eskimos. Arriving in the depth of
winter, his first sermon was all fire and brimstone to impress his flock. He
warned them of the huge perpetual ball of fire in Hell that awaited those who
would transgress God’s command. Imagine his anger and astonishment when the
very next day his parishioners were exuberantly engaged in those sinful deeds.
Responding to his admonishment they replied, “But Father, we want to go to that
place where the big fire burns all the time!”
those in the desert and the tropics, a huge ball of fire is indeed hellish, but
in the frigid tundra, that is heaven!
who would argue against my focusing only on Malays are revealing their own
entrapped minds. There is this mindset, widespread in Malaysia and elsewhere,
that when you help or favor one community you are ipso facto against or punishing another. This “zero-sum mentality”
is especially ingrained among Malaysians, and is getting worse. It is not
productive, in fact destructive.
the negotiations for merdeka, the participants from the various communities
were fully aware that Malays were far behind in just about every aspect. The
reasons were many, but simply knowing them did not necessarily lead to
solutions. As part of the grand bargain, the participants agreed to a set of
special privileges for Malays. That was part political pragmatism (no
agreement, no merdeka), and part collective wisdom. Our forefathers and the
British recognized that the new nation could not possibly survive if a
significant and visibly identifiable segment of the population were to remain
marginalized. Their insights were particularly prescient, as demonstrated by
the 1969 deadly race riot triggered by the obscene inter-communal inequities of
thesis is that helping Malays or any underdeveloped segment of the community,
especially one so highly visible because of color, culture or demography, is
also helping the larger community. If the socioeconomic standing of Malays was
lifted, the whole nation would benefit. We would have essentially uplifted
nearly two-thirds of the population. That would mean more customers, more
economic activity, and consequently more revenue for the country. It is far
from being a zero-sum exercise. Increasing the portion size of the pie for one
community need not be through making the shares of the others smaller, but by
making a bigger pie.
win/lose mentality can quickly degenerate into an even more destructive
dog-in-the-manger mindset, where purely out of spite one prevents another from
getting something they would otherwise have no use for anyway. Worse, you would
then be actively engaging in activities deliberately detrimental to the other
groups without benefiting your own. Sabotage is the proper word.
will illustrate this point with a personal anecdote. Years back I had a
vigorous discussion with my parents on a highly divisive issue in Malaysia at
the time. The Chinese community wanted to have a private university and had
cleverly chosen the name Merdeka University in the hope of getting Malay (in
particular UMNO) support. As that proposal would further advance the Chinese
community, and thus put the Malays further behind vis a vis the Chinese, it was vehemently opposed by Malays right
across the political spectrum. It was one of the few issues that actually
united Malays. My parents were no exception.
I suggested to them that Merdeka University would indeed be a great idea,
worthy of support of all Malaysians, my parents were taken aback and wondered
whether I was saying that purely to be argumentative. I assured them that I was
not. After all, that university would not cost the government a penny, and if
through that campus there were to be many more successful Chinese, Malays too
would benefit. For one, those successful Chinese would pay more taxes to what
was (still is) essentially a Malay-dominated government. Imagine what it could
do with all that extra revenue. For another, some of their graduates or the
enterprises they created would meet the needs of Malays, like becoming English
teachers in rural schools or employing Malays to attract Malay customers.
the benefits that could potentially accrue upon Malays for which we contributed
nothing, the Merdeka University would be a good idea and thus worthy of our
support. At the very least we should not oppose it. My parents however were not
persuaded, demonstrating a variant of the dog-in-the-manger attitude, except
that here while Malays would also benefit, the Chinese would obviously gain
I framed the issue differently. Instead of opposing and being unduly negative
about the university, why not explore the concept together with the Chinese
community and see how we could make the project beneficial not just for them
but also us? Be proactive instead of automatically opposing what the Chinese
had suggested. For example, the government could consider supporting through
monetary and other grants (like state land). After all, the government had
given generous donations to foreign universities in return for agreeing to
admit our students.
Merdeka University could agree to certain mutually beneficial conditions, like
attracting students from all communities, especially Malays, and be “Malay
friendly” such as serving halal food.
Then we could have a truly “win-win” situation, as the cliché would have it.
The proponents of the university would benefit as with the extra help they
could build a far superior facility than they could otherwise. The students too
would benefit, as they would have plenty of opportunities to escape their
clannishness with the presence of many non-Chinese classmates. Malays and
Malaysia would also benefit from the additional opportunity for tertiary
won my parents over with that argument. I hope to win my readers by pursuing a
similar line in this book.
This essay is excerpted from the author’s latest
book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI
Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
Next Excerpt #7:The Internal Consistency of a Culture
Re-Examining Three Defining Moments in Malay Culture
Re-Examining Three Defining Moments in Malay Culture
Three defining moments in Malay culture are worth recounting. First,
the arrival of Islam; second, onset of European colonization; and third,
the path we chose towards independence. I will examine how our culture
had served us in those three instances; exemplary in the first and
third, less so with the second.
It is fashionable these days to blame our culture for what ails our
community. Our leaders would let us believe that our culture is our
oppressor. When former Prime Minister Mahathir was asked what his
greatest failure was, he unhesitatingly asserted his inability to change
Malay culture. It reflected the height of arrogance on his part to even
consider that he could do so.
Mahathir was neither the first nor the last to blame our culture; he
however, went further to fault our very nature – our genes – as he
asserted in his book The Malay Dilemma. Early in the 19th
Century Munshi Abdullah also railed against our outdated ways while
Pendita Za’aba, a century later, echoed similar sentiments. More
recently there was Datuk Onn with his presumptuous membetulkan Melayu (correcting Malays). As is apparent, Mahathir has plenty of company.
These individuals are giants in our history. At the risk of appearing
self-important or worse, stupid, I will nonetheless take them on,
albeit with great trepidation. What those luminaries presumed to be the
flaws of Malay culture, as with our fondness for immediate
gratification, lack of savings, and apparent disinterest in education,
are in fact universal weaknesses of the poor, marginalized, and/ or
oppressed. We saw that with Irish-Americans in the early part of the
last century, the Irish under the English, and Hispanics and Blacks in
America today. Those are also features of a feudal agrarian society, or
those just emerging from it. About the only features unique to our Malay
culture are our fondness for sambal belacan (chilli shrimp paste) and our passion for our folk melody dondang sayang. Nothing wrong with that!
Culture is essentially conservative; any change would be slow and
have to work from bottom up and not the other way around. Those wannabe
revolutionaries ensconced in their air-conditioned offices calling for revolusi mental
(mental revolution) and who are presumptuous to believe that they have
the talent to change our culture are woefully misguided. They are high
on their own rhetoric.
A culture is best judged on how its members manage sudden changes,
not by observing it through a snapshot in time. Thus it would be
fruitful to review the three transformational events in our history
referenced earlier. As can be seen, we are still here and intact, which
says something of the endurance if not greatness of our culture. Not all
cultures are that lucky, and this should give us confidence if not
inspire us in facing our current challenges. It also demolishes the
arguments of those whose first and natural inclination would be to blame
our culture in discussing the “Malay issue.”
Those changes did not just happen; there were individuals and leaders
involved. I will recall some of those great open-minded individuals in
our history, as well as a few contemporary figures. I will not do
justice to their interesting biographical details not out of lessened
respect but because my focus here is on their free minds, and the impact
they had (and some are still having) on our society. To emphasize the
point that they are not anomalies or outliers in our culture, I will
recall some seemingly ordinary individuals whose personal achievements
reflect their free-mindedness. Their commonplace lives should inspire us
all the more.
Again to show that free-mindedness is not alien to but very much part
of our culture, I will recall a few such inspiring heroes in Malay
I next detour into neuroscience to explore the concept of a free
mind, what it means to have one, and the relationship of the mind to the
brain as well as the related notion of mindset. I rely less on
religious rationalization or philosophical pondering, more on the
insights gleaned from modern neuroscience and human psychology.
Sometimes the best way to understand a word or concept is to examine its antonyms, what it is not. We have an apt expression, katak di bawah tempurung (frog underneath a coconut shell). That is an excellent metaphor for a closed mind, the very opposite of a free one.
In the next section, “Comfort Underneath the Coconut Shell,” I shine
the light from a different angle, making the familiar seems less so or
even contrary to prevailing perceptions.
Lastly, I distinguish between the “Malay problem” and the “Malay
myth.” With the former we could deliberate, study the issues, and then
craft workable solutions; with the latter, we are reduced to accepting
Today there is near universal agreement among Malays that our
domination of politics and public administration is our savior. If not
for that, so the argument goes, we would have long been reduced to the
fringes of Malaysian society. Shining the light from a different angle
will illuminate this as nothing more than a delusion. Malays may control
politics and other apparatus of the state but we are far from being
sophisticated players; we do not wield this considerable power
effectively or with any finesse. Thus our dominance in politics and
public administration has degenerated into a significant problem instead
of being a major part of the solution.
My purpose is to shatter the illusions of those who find comfort in
life underneath the coconut shell. I go beyond and explore ways of
toppling this coconut shell, how best to liberate our minds. As
individuals we achieve this through travel, learning another language,
or experiencing another culture. My emphasis however is at the societal
level, principally through information, education, and commerce.
Once there is an open and abundant flow of news and information,
people would be exposed to a diversity of opinions and viewpoints. That
could only be liberating.
Schools and universities should educate, not indoctrinate the young.
To this end I advocate broad-based liberal education. Our students
should be functionally bilingual and have an understanding of a third,
at a minimum. The curriculum should emphasize critical thinking over
rote memorization. Regardless of their career choices, our students
should have some understanding of the sciences and be competent in basic
As for commerce, if our people were to become entrepreneurs or
otherwise engaged in trade, then we would view others more as potential
customers instead of enemies. We and they would be much better off for
Quite apart from the economic benefits, engaging in commerce is the
surest way to liberate our minds; likewise with the free flow of
information and liberal education. Those are also the most effective
ways of preparing us for the open world once we have toppled our shell.
If we do not adequately prepare our people for the wide open world,
then they would find it disorienting and far from exciting or full of
opportunities. That would only scare them to flee back underneath the
old, familiar and comfortable coconut shell.
The principal path pursued by the UMNO government to spearhead Malay
engagement in commerce is through the route of government-linked
companies (GLCs). It is also the most expensive. As the government is
addicted to GLCs, I devote considerable ink in critically examining this
initiative. I am no fan of GLCs; their performance over the decades
merely confirms my conviction. The current imbroglio with 1MDB is not
only the most recent but also most expensive. I go beyond criticizing to
In the section “Imprisoned by Religion,” I examine the other factor
besides culture that is central to Malay life. My two central points are
first, we should differentiate between Islam and Arabism, and second,
we should be aware of the signal difference between label and content
with respect to Islam. If we are cognizant of both then our faith, far
from imprisoning us, will in fact emancipate us just as it did the
Lastly (Part Eight, “Where We Are Headed”) I reflect on where we
would be if we do not change direction. I expand on the three
existential threats to Malays mentioned earlier, the fracturing of Malay
society along religious, cultural, and socio-cultural cleavages. At a
minimal those threats could derail our Vision 2020 aspirations of
becoming a developed society. I also explore what it means to be
“developed” as a society, going beyond the familiar socio-economic
I end as I began, on a positive note. For me this was the most fun
part of the book, my question-and-answer sessions with the students.
They covered a wide gamut of topics and I have grouped them
This essay is excerpted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
Next Excerpt #6: Incentives and Zero-Sum Mindset
Malays hold an almost exclusive grip on the political process and leadership. Through demographic dynamics Malays could rule the country without support from any other community, and still do justice to the principle of representative governance and other niceties of democracy.
That we do not is a tribute to our sense of fairness and justice, reflecting the values of our culture. It also shows that we have not been infected with the destructive virus of tribalism, an affliction that grips even the most sophisticated. This point deserves repeating as it is not widely acknowledged much less appreciated.
Contrary to the delusions of many Malays, this near exclusive grip on political power is not all blessing or an advantage. It would be if handled competently, but current Malay leaders across the political spectrum are far from being adroit or sophisticated. This political power is thus more bane than blessing. It distracts us from other important and equally worthy pursuits, especially economic.
Worse, with politics now all-consuming, it corrupts all our other endeavors. Our academics are but politicians with glorified professorial titles; our singers and writers are known less for their talent and creativity, more for their endless praises for our leaders.
Because of their long unchallenged grip on power, our leaders are infected with the megalomania virus. They are immune to criticisms; worse, they delude themselves into believing that they can do no wrong. They deceive themselves into thinking that they could readily transfer their political “skills” to other spheres. They cannot; the skills required to ascend the party hierarchy are very different from those needed to run a ministry, helm a major corporation, or lead an academic institution. It is the rare individual who could make a smooth and successful transition.
More pernicious is that these leaders are increasingly appealing to and catering for the most extreme elements in their party. They had to, to win party elections. When these politicians become leaders of the country those old bad habits remain; instead of becoming statesmen they remain unrepentant politicians only too willing to resort to political expedience.
This of course is not unique to Malaysia. The American Congress is held hostage by its minority members with extreme views. America can afford such shenanigans as it is already cruising at high altitude. Malaysia is still trying to ascend; if it does not accelerate it will stall and crash.
Malays are in perpetual mortal fear of losing their grip on political power. Thus we view the increasingly diverse political views among us as dangerous and detrimental to our future. Our cultural view of “good” citizenship would have us be like sheep, blindly following the command of our leaders. To our leaders, diverse political views dilute our voting power.
The closed minds of both Malay leaders and followers cannot comprehend that political diversity (as with all diversities) is an asset and a blessing. Only through examining multiple views would we find one that would suit us best. Diversity is Allah’s grand design.
Thankfully, this is changing. A dramatic and refreshing demonstration of this was the recent (July 9, 2011) BERSIH 2.0 demonstrations. Malay leaders in UMNO including Prime Minister Najib spared no effort in demonizing BERSIH’s very visible non-Malay organizers as “unpatriotic” or even “anti-Malay.” The government went beyond and declared the organization illegal. Those who dared wear attires in the movement’s trademark color – yellow – risked being arrested. Shockingly, many were.
It was reprehensible that a week or two before, the Imams in their usual canned sermons issued by the religious department declared the planned public rally haram, thus unnecessarily injecting a divisive religious element to what was essentially a civic matter. Despite all that, thousands of Malays defied their government, imams, and the party that had long presumed to speak on their behalf to take part in the rally. Clearly those Malay demonstrators were no longer trapped by tribalism; they had escaped the clutches of chauvinism. Bless them!
That was a significant milestone. Leaders who ignore this seismic change do so at their peril. For aspiring Malay leaders, it is now no longer sufficient to display their nationalistic zeal or ethnic instincts. They have to articulate the issues that matter most to the Malay masses: fairness, honesty, and justice, in elections and everywhere else. I would also add competence. Those are also the concerns of all Malaysians.
Yes, there was a time when Malay leaders could garner support by justifying that the victims of their corruption, injustices and inequality were non-Malays. Those days are now long gone, get used to that! Not that there was any consolation that their victims were not our kind, for we too could be next. And today we are.
The comforting corollary to my observation on BERSIH 2.0 is that those capable non-Malay leaders could be assured of Malay support if they were to address the central issues facing the masses.
Another encouraging consequence to Malay political diversity and maturity is that we now choose leaders according to our political persuasions and their personal qualities like competence and integrity, instead purely on racial sentiment. There was a time when we would accept even scoundrels as leaders as long as they are Malays. The rationale then was that they may be scoundrels but at least they were our scoundrels! Those days too are now thankfully gone.
Thus while my book focuses only on Malays, it has pertinence to non-Malays, especially those aspiring to lead Malaysia.
This essay is adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2013
May 31, 2015
Next week: Excerpt #5: Three Defining Moments in Malay Culture
Much is at stake for Malays. Only those lulled by Hang
Tuah’s blustery Takkan Melayu hilang di
dunia (Malays will never be lost from this world) would pretend otherwise. History
is replete with examples of once great civilizations now reduced to footnotes.
At best they are but objects of tourists’ curiosities, as with the Mayans.
unlikely for Malay civilization to disappear; there are nearly a quarter
billion of us in the greater Nusantara world of Southeast
Asia. There is however, a fate far worse, and that is for Malaysia
to be developed but with Malays shunted aside, reduced to performing exotic songs
and dances for tourists.
about 17 million Malays in Malaysia,
comparable to the population of the Netherlands. Their colonial record
excluded, the Dutch should be our inspiration of what a population of 17
million could achieve.
Consider Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest
port. One expects that title to go to a port in Britain,
Germany, or Russia.
Then consider the following famous brands: Shell (petroleum), Phillips (electronics),
Unilever (consumer goods), Heineken (beer), and ING (financial services). Those
are all Dutch companies.
Hosts of eminent
organizations like the International Criminal Court and International Court of
Justice are headquarted in the Netherlands.
More remarkable is this. That country is behind only America
in agricultural exports, despite a quarter of its land being below sea level!
that to Malays and Malaysia.
Malays are in political control; non-Malays cannot challenge that; it is a
demographic reality. We have a land mass ten
times that of the Netherlands,
and none of it underwater, except when it rains and our rivers get clogged with
pollution. Then it seems the entire country is underwater, paralyzed and
gasping for air.
we could achieve even a tenth of what the Dutch have done! That should be our
goal and inspiration, not endless reciting of Hang Tuah’s immortal words or the
incessant hollering of Ketuanan Melayu.
being hoodwinked by the government’s glossy publications and our leaders’ rosy accounts.
Take the “Malaysian Quality of Life 2004 Report” produced by the Prime
Minister’s Department. At 113 pages, it is full of glossy pictures of
well-trimmed suburban neighborhoods, neat kampong houses, and of course the
iconic Petronas Towers. There is also a picture of
earnest executives engaged in videoconferencing, highlighting the latest
features the responsible minister, Mustapa Mohamed, beaming against the
backdrop of a lush, luxurious golf course. That image reveals more of the
truth, perhaps unintended; the golf course is exactly where you are likely to
find these ministers.
minister’s kampong in Jeli, Kelantan, and the reality would be far different. I
have no data specific on Jeli but a recent study of Pulau Redong and Pulau
Perhentian, islands off Trengganu, would shock anyone. A fifth of the villagers
have no formal education; half only primary level. This in 2011! Their average
income is less than what Indonesian maids earn. As a needless reminder, those
villagers are Malays.
shocking and reflective of the malaise, two-thirds of the respondents expect
“little” or “no change.” They have given up hope. So much for UMNO’s grandiose
promises on “protecting and enhancing” the position of Malays!
high-flying UMNO operatives visit the east coast they lodge at the exclusive Chinese-owned
Berjaya Resort, with taxpayers footing the bill. There they could partake in
video conferencing. For the islanders however, fewer than four percent have
Internet access. There is a thriving tourism industry but those jobs are out of
reach to the residents for lack of skills and education.
islanders’ world is a universe away from that of their fellow Bumiputras like
Women Affairs Minister Sharizat Jalil with her ultra-luxury condos courtesy of
hefty Bumiputra discounts and generous “soft” government loans.
New Economic Policy, Mahathir’s Vision 2020, and now Najib’s 1-Malaysia all
have the same aspiration of turning Malaysia into a developed nation. For
to be developed however, we must first develop its biggest demographic group –
Malays. So long as Malays remain backward, so will Malaysia. Tun Razak’s NEP recognized
this central reality. Vision 2020 and 1-Malaysia are eerily silent on it.
this glaring omission, Vision 2020 caught on, Mahathir’s domineering
personality snuffing out potential criticisms, at least while he was in power.
Najib is not so blessed personality-wise; hence his difficulty selling his 1-Malaysia
even to his party members.
problems would necessitate us to first address those of the Malays. That is the
focus of my commentaries. The accepted assumption is that by solving Malaysia’s
problems, those of the Malays would automatically be resolved, the rising tide
lifting all boats. Less appreciated is that a rising tide lifts only those
boats that are free to float. Those trapped under low bridges or with short
anchor rode would be swamped. For a rising tide to be a benefit and not a
threat we must first ensure that all boats are free to float; otherwise they
would be doomed.
Malay mind is equivalent to freeing our prahus,
of giving them adequate anchor lines or moving them away from under bridges and
other encumbrances. Today there are just too many Malay boats that are being
hampered. We must first free them; otherwise the rising tide would do them no
favor. It would only swamp them.
This essay is adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI
Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya,
May 24, 2015
Next week:Excerpt #4:The Curse of Our Obsession with Politics
The colonials imposed upon us and the world their narrative
of “the lazy native.” They also spun an equally fictional one for themselves –
the superiority of the white man. Both myths were needed to justify their
shattered that second myth. The sight of the “superior” white men hightailing
it, chased by the Japanese on their sardine can-made bicycles, emboldened Malays
to take on the hitherto-considered mighty British. That led to our merdeka. As
for the first myth, that too would have been busted had the Japanese Occupation
lasted longer. There were no lazy natives during the Occupation; the Japanese
made sure of that.
merdeka, in an ironic twist we substituted our own equally fictional narrative
of ourselves. This one, not surprisingly, puts us at the polar opposite of the
‘lazy native.’ We now view ourselves as the privileged “sons of the soil”
(Bumiputra). With that we declare our inherent superiority, taking a leaf from
the colonials. Ketuanan Melayu (Malay
hegemony) is but the latest incarnation of this new narrative.
we may have changed our story, the reality remains the same; we are merely
trading one mental coconut shell for another. That is no liberation.
good fiction, there is just enough truth laced with an exuberance of artistic
license to both the old colonial narrative of the lazy native as well as that
of our new privileged ‘sons-of-the-soil.’ Also like all good stories, there is
an underlying purpose to such narratives, apart from their being good yarns.
Discerning that would require us to undertake some introspection and even
greater critical analysis.
colonialists’ myths of the lazy native and noblesse
oblige justified their taking over our country and our rich resources. It
also justified their bringing in hordes of indentured labor from India and China. The colonials needed such a
narrative to sooth their collective conscience. They further assuaged it by
calling us “nature’s gentlemen,” a term only slightly less condescending than
purpose would our narrative of Ketuanan
Melayu serve? It is good fiction, as judged by its wide acceptance, much
like a “good” dime novel has wide readership. Also like a good novel, this Ketuanan Melayu myth has just enough
element of truth to it. We Malays are indeed “natives” of Malaysia; at least we have a better claim to
that than the Anglo Saxons have of Australia.
this narrative of Ketuanan Melayu, like
those Harlequin novels and soap operas, serves to encourage escapism into a
fantasy world. If that were so, the question remains as to what purpose.
not be far wrong if we were to, as the pundits put it, follow the money. Just
as those dime novels and soap operas make tons of money for their publishers
and producers, so too our narrative of Ketuanan
Melayu for its perpetrators.
It is not coincidental
that the shrillest proponents of Ketuanan
Melayu are also the most privileged of Malays – the UMNO Putras. These are
the ones with palatial bungalows, trophy wives, and children in private
schools, all made possible through political patronages, “Approve Permits,” and
eventually get punctured. That of the lazy native busted under its own weight.
Indications are that this has already begun with Ketuanan Melayu. A Malay has difficulty reveling in his exalted
privileged son-of-the-soil status around KLCC; he has difficulty finding a restaurant
that would serve him rendang.
Ketuanan Melayu too sense this
impending implosion; hence their preoccupation with creating new conspiracies
to bedevil us. First was the hantu of
globalization and capitalism. As that did not scare us enough, they concocted hantu pendatang (of immigrants). Meanwhile
we are being ensnared by the hantu of
a good story; indeed we need it. That
also reflects how our brain works. Our mind creates a narrative of ourselves
and of the universe, and our place within it. Our mind works hard to make that
story consistent. When new information intrudes that does not fit our existing
narrative, our brain re-interprets the new information to make it conform. When
our version of the world is far detached from reality, we become delusional.
That is schizophrenia, a serious mental malady.
feature of the brain that rivals its ability to edit non-conforming information
is its tendency to see the whole instead of the parts; hence the dominance of
Just like a
portrait can look very different depending on the frame, likewise our
perception of reality based on our mental frame. We pick a course of action
when it is framed as having an 80 percent chance of success over one with 20
percent chance of failure, despite both expressing the same thing. We drive
across town to “save” a dollar even if we have to spend more on getting there.
can be imprisoned by this framing effect. We Malays framed our dilemmas as one
of Ketuanan Melayu instead of our
lack of competitiveness, as it should be. All of our subsequent actions are
thus “framed” by this mindset.
with Ketuanan Melayu and the various hantus distracts us from recognizing and
facing our real existential threats – our laggardness in economics, education
and other arenas, as well as our deepening polarization and increasing
inequities within our community. Intra-racial inequities and polarization worry
me more than the inter-racial variety; I fear less another May 1969, more a
Malay civil war.
risk being cast aside by global currents. Even once xenophobic China is now
embracing globalization and capitalism, to the benefit of its people. In
contrast, our obsession with religion puts us right in the target of its
extremist elements, turning Malaysia
into another Iran or Afghanistan.
We need a new
narrative, one that reflects our true nature and the world we live in. If we
were to do so, our actions would be more productive and less disruptive. Even
if our new story were to have some fanciful elements, with an open mind,
associated humility, and willingness to learn, we could tweak and re-edit it to
conform to reality.
what a free mind does. With a closed mind our narrative would calcify, detaching
us from reality. We would then distort reality to make it conform to our warped
the Malay mind, and we topple our coconut shell. Information (freer access to
it), education (liberal and broad-based, with competence in science and
mathematics), and engagement in trade and commerce (capitalism – the genuine,
not the ersatz or rent-seeking variety) are the proven tools to topple our
coconut shell and prepare us for the wonderful open world.
the Malay mind and those hantus would
be exposed for what they are, figments of our wild imagination. A free mind
turns crises into opportunities. Liberate the Malay mind and we will re-frame
our dilemmas. Liberate our minds and we liberate our world.
Begin by acknowledging
the forces that have kept and are keeping our minds closed. Foremost are the
myriad intrusive and repressive rules, the mother of which is the Internal
Security Act. Those are instruments of oppression, not liberation. Then there
are our schools and universities, intent on indoctrinating rather than
educating our young. More entrenched is the corruption of our cultural values
where respect for leaders is mistaken as a license for them to indulge at our
expense. Most of all we must discard our myopic interpretation of our faith.
forces that have entrapped the Malay mind, and we are on our way to liberating
it. That essentially summarizes my book. What follows are but elaborations,
illustrations, and persuasions.
May 17, 2015
This essay is adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI
Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya,
Malays need to have minda
merdeka (free or liberated mind). We do not need another Melayu Baru (New Malay), Glokal Malay (contraction for global and
local), Ketuanan Melayu (Malay
hegemony), revolusi mental (mental
revolution), and other tired slogans. Those would all be for naught if our
collective minds remained trapped with their distorted views of the past and
present. Facing the future with a closed mind is not the way either, at least
not with any hope for success.
Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer published his highly-acclaimed Buru
Quartet novels soon after his release from Pulau Buru prison. When asked during
a book tour in America how he was able to craft such a wonderful work of art
while being imprisoned under the most inhumane conditions, Pramoedya replied,
“I create freedom for myself!”
what a free mind can do. Your body may be imprisoned and confined to total
darkness for 24 hours a day save for a ray of light peeking through the keyhole,
as Pramoedya was, but no one could imprison your free mind. Under such cruel
circumstances a mind that is not free could easily disintegrate, going wild and
berserk, which justifies the continued isolation and inhumane treatment.
Malays must create freedom for ourselves. Merdeka
Minda Melayu! (Liberate The Malay Mind!) This should be our new battle cry,
its rhythmic resonance and arresting alliteration trumping even Hang Tuah’s
immortal Takkan Melayu Hilang Di Dunia!
(Malays shall never disappear from this Earth!)
my choice of the title for this book is the recognition that the Malay mind has
long been entrapped. The challenges our community has been grappling with all
along can directly or indirectly be attributed to the fact that our collective
consciousness has been caged and consequently closed off to seeking out new and
the assertions of many, our problems are not rooted in the presumed
deficiencies of our biology or culture. Nor are they caused by colonialism
(traditional or the neo-variety), the pendatangs
(immigrants), capitalism, globalization, or even our supposed lack of unity. We
have been led to believe that these are problems, not opportunities. They will
remain so as long our minds are trapped. If we liberate our minds we will then
be able to view these challenges as opportunities, and begin to explore them as
such. That would be more productive, and the results would be more to our
been addicted to the comfort of life underneath the proverbial coconut shell
for far too long. Now with the shell breached by globalization and the digital
waves, it is dawning upon us that our “comfort” is anything but. There is a far
greater, more open, and definitely wondrous universe out there that we have
the coconut shell is no longer sustainable; for many it is already intolerable.
We can either topple this shell ourselves or risk having it done by external
forces. With the former we would be in command of our destiny; we could choose
the timing, manner, and consequently the outcome. With the latter, we would be
at the mercy of events and circumstances beyond our control; we would be
reduced to being victims, begging for the kindness and benevolence of others.
Hussein and his Republican Guards certainly thought they were very comfortable in
the desert, secure under their well-camouflaged shells. That is, until those
shells were literally blown apart by outside forces.
coconut shell cannot be physically destroyed as it is only metaphorical – our
closed minds. Besides, with the huge pores already created by globalization and
the digital revolution, many have already successfully emerged from underneath
that shell. The biggest danger is not so much that our shell will be toppled by
outside forces or through agitations from within, rather that the world would
ignore and leave us to rot underneath it, with only the mushrooms to sustain
be the fate that awaits those with a closed mind. Perhaps we could rationalize
that by adopting a “leave us alone” philosophy. Such an option however, is not
for us to choose but for others to impose.
If we do
not merdekakan minda kita, that is,
liberate our minds, others will define our destiny for us.
the future of Malays depends on, in Pramoedya’s words, our ability to create
freedom for ourselves. We would achieve this goal not through endless and
meaningless mass exhortations from our leaders rather individual at a time. A
Malay with a liberated mind is his or her own leader. We can dispense with the
current crop of leaders with trapped minds.
Adapted from M. Bakri Musa:
Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI
Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2013
Excerpt #5 (Last):Two
Black Swans and Many More Dark Crows
component of the toxic triad – Abdullah Badawi – is gone and no longer heaping
his share of trash upon the nation. As for UMNO, despite being the largest
party and a ruling one at the federal level for over the past half a century,
it never gets a foothold in Sarawak. Of the nine states in the peninsula, UMNO
is permanently wiped off in Penang, Kelantan, and Selangor. If the federal
territory of Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur were also a state, UMNO would be wiped
out there too. At one time it was also out in Perak, Kedah, and Trengganu.
only Najib. My earlier prediction of his premature ending as prime minister
notwithstanding (see “Priority of Packaging Over Performance’” page 119), he is
now secure at the top of the UMNO rubbish heap. To be the unchallenged skipper
of the Titanic is no job security; it
could very well undermine your well-being.
I am always
amazed at the ability of one person to initiate transformational changes. Often
those individuals are the ones we least expect. There is no rhyme or reason for
such individuals to emerge except that they somehow appear at the right time
and place, with all the right people to help him or her do the right thing in
the right manner; in short, the confluence of all the elements and the
alignment of all the stars.
1990s Indonesia was threatened to be ripped apart by its bewildering
centrifugal forces. Today it celebrates its peaceful democratic transition with
a new and promising leader in Joko Widodo. Further east, who would have
predicted back in the 1970s that a diminutive, uninspiring and uncharismatic
Deng Xiaoping would dismantle the handiwork of the colossal but destructive Mao
east across the Yellow Sea, in the 1950s the South Koreans depended entirely on
the spending of the hundreds of thousands of American GIs stationed there. Then
came General Park; today Samsung, Hyundai and LG are global household brand
At the same
time I do not underestimate the ability of one idiot to wreck untold damage
upon a nation while its citizens stand by and let it happen. Nearby there was
Indonesia’s Sukarno, further away Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, and in the not-too-distant
past, Iraq’s Saddam.
Thus I do
not underestimate Najib Razak to do likewise to the great nation of Malaysia if
Malaysians let him. I hope they would not.
suffered through two horrific man-made disasters in the span of just a few
months in 2014. The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 over the
South China Sea remains a mystery to this day. While we know what happened to
Flight MH17, the question remains of why a MAS plane? After all, a Singapore
Airlines jet had earlier flown a similar route while an Air India one was only
a few kilometers away.
“black swan” (rare, unpredictable) event occurs, it is natural for people to
look beyond the realm of the rational for an explanation. This is not an
affliction of only the uninformed and poorly educated. In part this reflects
the universal recognition that there is a greater power governing us all that we
have as yet to fully comprehend.
struck, many religious leaders insensitive to the pain of the victims’
relatives and friends called it divine retribution for America’s tolerance of
homosexual ways; likewise when Katrina broke the levees of New Orleans.
other end of the world, when the Asian tsunami hit northern Sumatra at
Christmas 2004, the iconic image that was seared into everyone’s memory was of
the lone mosque standing forlornly and unscathed amidst the sea of destruction
even an inkling of science knew that the tsunami was caused by a shift in the
earth’s tectonic plates deep in the floor of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of
Sumatra. That knowledge has profound consequences; it led to the creation of
ocean sensors that could detect those earth and giant wave movements well ahead
to warn those that may be affected. Along the coast of Japan and western North
and South America there are already early warning systems and clearly marked
evacuation routes. Indonesia did not have them then.
science-challenged Indonesian peasants saw things differently. To them, the
lone standing mosque was Allah sending them a message. The peace treaty that
ended the generations-long civil war in Aceh was signed soon after. Their
metaphysical interpretation of events too had a fruitful consequence.
dismiss or belittle the Indonesians’ belief, there is still the question of why
the tectonic shift had to occur there and at that particular time and not at
some remote uninhabited part of the Pacific. That defies science, at least as
we know it. Modern science offers only probabilities.
Malaysia suffered through two eerily similar “black swan” tragedies in the two
passenger-jet crashes, it was not a surprise that many looked for some
explanations beyond science. To be sure, a plane disappearing or crashing is
not a black swan event, but MH370 disappeared without leaving any trace,
incredulous in this day of round-the-clock ubiquitous satellite surveillance. That
tragedy still baffles the experts. As for the ill-fated MH17, while we all knew
what happened (it was shot down), still the question remains why a MAS plane
was the unfortunate victim.
obscure village alim says that the calamities were caused by MAS serving
alcohol, he can rightly be scoffed at and be ridiculed. By that theory Emirate
Airlines would have been a top casualty. However, when thoughtful commentators
like Kadir Jasin, the former editor-in-chief of The New Straits Times, and Zaid Ibrahim, a former cabinet minister
and successful corporate lawyer, alluded to bala
or divine retribution, then we are compelled to pause and reflect. This is
especially so when their views resonated with the general public.
many had taken figurative pot shots at MAS in the past. Stated differently,
long before these two black swans, the airline had had many dark crows. MAS
would long ago have been grounded, and many times too, had it not been for the
government coming in with expensive rescue bailouts.
units of the airline, like catering and maintenance, had been siphoned off to
UMNO cronies, and then MAS was forced to buy back those services at inflated
prices, converting what were once revenue-producing units into revenue-draining
ones. On another front, instead of pampering its customers, MAS was pampering
its employees, from ramp handlers to top executives. They all happily hogged
the company’s trough at the customers’ expense, and with taxpayers ultimately
paying the bill.
airlines were getting substantial discounts for their new planes and passing
those savings back to their companies, MAS was paying full retail price, with
the discounts going into the pockets of crony middle men “consultants” in
cahoots with top executives. Then there was that “brilliant” idea of selling
its headquarters in a prime Kuala Lumpur location and then renting space back
from its new owner. It’s akin to selling your house and then paying rent to the
new owner, adding another expense. This was what Pan Am Airlines did in 1970.
We all know what happened to that company.
was that wonderful scheme of financial engineering scheme dubbed WAU
(Widespread Asset Unbundling) where MAS sold its planes and then leased them
back. Again it was like selling its headquarters. Not owning your own planes is
a smart and effective strategy for a start-up airline; it conserves capital
that could be diverted to expanding its market. It is however a dumb move for
an established company to do so as that would only add another layer of costs.
The only ones wowed by that WAU scheme were the new owners of the planes and
the investment bankers who arranged the deal. That deal was also a cute play on
words as “wau” is Malay for kite, the
shares serve as a metaphor for Malaysia, then what happens to MAS the company
mirrors what happens to Malaysia the country. Previously reliable services like
power and water that were provided by competent public entities are now
privatized, sold at heavily discounted prices to favored political cronies.
These ersatz capitalists, pseudo entrepreneurs, and rent seekers came out like
bandits, but the pipes often run dry, and when they do flow, the water is not
fit to drink. Likewise with electrical supplies; they are erratic and with ever
government cannot forever protect MAS from the reality of an increasingly
competitive world. The price for bailouts keeps escalating and is no longer
sustainable. For MAS, the skid was greased by the entry of Air Asia at one end,
which cannibalized MAS on the domestic and regional front, and Singapore and
other Asian airlines like Cathay Pacific that chipped away at MAS’s long-haul
black swan, MH370 disappearance, exposed the incompetence of Malaysian leaders
on the world stage. Malaysians of course have been fully aware of this for a
long time. These leaders could not handle even simple queries from journalists
and the public. The astute political cartoonist Zunar captured well the
bumbling Najib. His biting cartoon depicting a “Too Weak” Najib “Two Weeks”
after MH370 was carried by The Washington
Malaysians too have been exposed to the reality of a highly competitive
globalized world. They now realize that the “education” they had received at
local institutions has been nothing more than indoctrination. Their low English
proficiency and abysmal communicating skills and critical thinking faculties do
not serve them well in the new marketplace.
I hope Malaysian
leaders would heed the wisdom of Zaid Ibrahim and Kadir Jassin, that is, treat
the two black swan events as the Indonesians treated their black swan of the
Asian tsunami. Keep the Malaysian house pure and in good order, free of what
displeases Allah, not to please Him but to please Malaysians.
and others in UMNO fail to heed this message, then Malaysians are duty bound to
remove them and give others the privilege to lead the nation