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.
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
Excerpt #4:The Future:From Blue Chip To Penny Stock
Long before the twin tragedies of Malaysia Airlines (MAS)
Flight MH17 (shot down in eastern Ukraine in March 2014) and MH370 (disappeared
literally from thin air over the South China Sea less than four months
earlier), the company’s shares were already languishing at the bottom floor of
the KLSE at around 22 sen. Yes, that
is sen, as in cents, or pennies. Even
bottom feeders were shunning MAS shares.
that less than two decades earlier the Mahathir Administration paid RM8.00 for
those same shares! Factoring in for inflation and devaluation, it should be
about RM32.00 in today’s devalued ringgit. If you add in the expected
appreciation as per the KLSE Index, the shares should be trading at around
to 22 sen! Formerly blue chip MAS now
a penny stock! It would be cheaper to use MAS shares to wallpaper your
bathroom; they are useless for toilet paper.
are an apt metaphor for Malaysia. She too has taken a precipitous drop in value
as the result of the toxic leadership of Abdullah Badawi, Najib Razak, and
UMNO. I should also add Mahathir; however, he is now long gone though still
making some loud but ineffective noises. At any rate, the ugly legacy Mahathir
bequeathed upon Malaysia should and would have been ameliorated by now if she
had competent and diligent leadership.
Mahathir’s successors Abdullah and Najib are neither competent nor diligent,
and UMNO, the instrument of their leadership, is a corrupt and sclerotic
organization, unable to respond to changes. All three are Mahathir’s legacy.
That is the heaviest burden Malaysia has to bear.
The drop in
value of MAS shares is readily apparent and easily quantifiable, with the
burden borne exclusively by its unlucky shareholders. In contrast, the
devaluation of Malaysia, while also readily apparent to citizens, has yet to
register on her leaders. They still delude themselves as leading a blue chip
nation. The weight of the nation’s devaluation is borne not by them but by
Malaysians least able to bear it, the poor. Again let it be said so those
self-proclaimed champions of the Malay cause in UMNO and elsewhere can hear it
loud and clear, Malays are over represented in that stratum.
magnitude of this devaluation has yet to be appreciated or quantified. Consider
my old school The Malay College, dubbed “Eton of the East” by its proud old
boys. In the 1960s it prepared its students well for universities. Today it is
but an expensive glorified middle school; its students have to go elsewhere to
matriculate. This sorry state was reversed only recently with the introduction
of its International Baccalaureate program.
On a more
general level, in the 1980s there were still many Chinese parents who enrolled
their children in national schools. Today even Malays are deserting that stream
in ever increasing numbers, with both opting for Mandarin schools instead.
1980s I could still gather a few Malays at Stanford to invite them to my home
for Hari Raya celebrations; today there are no Malays there and few at the
other elite campuses.
1990s a young Malay doctor who had graduated a decade earlier from the
University of Malaya (UM) did sufficiently well in her US Medical Licensing
Examination to be accepted at a top American hospital for her specialty
training. That reflected her superior undergraduate medical education. Today,
the British Medical Council had long ago withdrawn its accreditation of UM’s
medical faculty. Yet that did not stop the university’s leaders from deluding
themselves that their institution could be among the top global 100 within a
few years. Not to be outdone, the vice-chancellor of another public university
bragged about his institution aspiring to be the “Harvard of the East,” within
apparent, Malaysia has no shortage of her Walter Mittys, or his local
counterpart, the Mat Jenins.
only the education sector. For the greater economy, in the 1970s Malaysia was
able to finance its ambitious and highly successful rural development schemes
like FELDA, as well as expand her schools, without resorting to any borrowing,
local or foreign. Today, public and private debts threaten to sink the nation
and its citizens.
FELDA, while Malaysia brags about floating the biggest global IPO with its
Felda Global Holdings(FGH), bigger in valuation than even Facebook, for a
reality check, visit its settlements. The roads are still unpaved while the
homes lack electricity and potable water. The schools on those settlements are
an embarrassment. Oil palm, the foundation cash crop, is still being harvested
in the old back-breaking and neck-stretching labor-intensive ways of the 1960s.
There is little or no innovation; no hydraulic lifts or mechanical harvesters to
relieve the onerous and treacherous human burden.
macro level, in the 1970s the Malaysian ringgit was on par with the Singapore
dollar. Today the ringgit vies with the rupiah
and rupees. Soon Malaysians would be
trading in millions just for their daily bread. I suppose that is one way for
the nation to brag about having many millionaires.
security, Malaysian homes are now fortified fortresses, with armed guards at
road entrances. Malaysians are well advised not to don expensive watches or wrist
bracelets if they value their hands. Malaysian borders are as porous as fishing
nets. At least those nets trap the big fish; Malaysian borders let them in and
out, their pathways greased by the devalued ringgit.
belaboring a point here. These are all painfully obvious to the average
Malaysian. My doing so is merely to illustrate in tangible and graphic terms
readily comprehensible by kampong folks the devaluation of Malaysia that is the
consequence of the toxic trio of Abdullah Badawi, Najib Razak, and UMNO. They
will continue to spew their lethal brew onto Malaysia at least until the next
general election, due no later than June 2018. For those now burdened by their
poisonous brew, that is a long time away. In nation-building however, that is only
a blink of the eye. I am optimistic that positive change will come with that
election if the process can be kept honest. Then Malaysians will have a chance
Black Swans and Many More Dark Crows
Excerpt #3:Intra Racial (Specifically Intra-Malay)
Conflict The Greater Threat
In an inaugural Millennium Essay for The New Straits Times (November 1999) I wrote, “The greatest threat
to Malaysia’s social stability is not inter-racial
confrontation rather intra-communal,
specifically among Malays.” There are three potential fault lines along which
Malays could fracture:religious,
cultural, and socioeconomic. Conflict on any one is unlikely to trigger a
severe crisis but a confluence of any two or all three could be cataclysmic.
is bad, and Malaysians already had a taste of it many times. The May 13, 1969
incident was only the most bitter. Bad as it was, the intra-ethnic or
intra-racial variety would be far worse. More Arabs had been killed by their
fellow Arab brethrens than by the Israelis. The carnage of the 1956
Arab-Israeli War pales in comparison to the current intra-Arab strife in Syria.
Malays and non-Malays are over tangible issues, as with scholarship quotas,
employment preferences, and economic set-aside programs. Those are what
Hirschmann referred to as “divisible conflicts,” potentially solvable through
negotiations. Differences within Malays on the other hand are over cultural
values, theological beliefs, and way of life. These are more difficult if not
impossible to resolve. If a pious kampong Malay feels that a proper Muslim
woman must don her hijab while her
urbane secular-minded sister disagrees, you cannot readily resolve that
difference. A compromise as with donning half a hijab would not resolve it.
The first half of this
wasted decade was helmed by Abdullah Badawi; he has now exited the stage before
he could inflict even more damage. Today Malaysia is burdened with his
successor, Najib Razak, who is equally intent in destroying the nation through
his ineptness and willful neglect.
In my book The Malay Dilemma Revisited (1999) I
wrote this of Abdullah. “He would be Malaysia’s Jimmy Carter, an honorable
enough man but a totally ineffectual leader.” I was half right, in his being
ineffectual. As for Najib, “[It] is difficult to evaluate as he carries the
burden of his famous father . . . . [O]bjectively, it is hard to find Najib’s
Mahathir was still
sharp and in power when I made those observations but he was too close to
Abdullah and Najib to read them the way I did.
When Mahathir named
Abdullah the country’s eighth Deputy Prime Minister in 1998, the reaction was a
yawn or two at most. Mahathir had had three previous deputies, and expectations
were that his fourth would end up like the rest, being replaced and denied the
However, when Mahathir
announced his sudden resignation, the realization set in that Abdullah Badawi
would succeed him. Like sheep, Malaysians accepted that and shifted allegiance
to their new shepherd-to-be, and the accolades began pouring in. The man’s
apparent lack of gross flaws normally associated with politicians only
increased his halo, and quickly blotted out the more pertinent point that he
lacked executive or leadership talent. The time too was opportune for Abdullah
for by this time the nation had grown weary of Mahathir. They wanted change and
overlooked Abdullah’s shortcomings. He also benefited from this cultural trait
of Malaysians; they are over generous with a new leader and wanted him to
Despite the glowing
praises, Abdullah Badawi was as hollow as a beetle-infested palm trunk. Many
mistook him for a samping sutra
(golden cummerbund) when he was but a common cotton sarong pelekat. Abdullah’s leadership was detached, incompetent,
and irrelevant. He was unfit to lead the country.
pronouncements upon assuming office in October 2009 made me question my initial
skepticism of him. Alas, it did not take long for him to live up (or down) to
my low expectations of him. Top-heavy Najib is busy spinning himself just to
remain standing, and he confuses that fast circular motion as rapid
The commentaries in
this book, written from January 2008 to December 2013 during the tenure of
these two leaders, are grouped in four themes, each dealing with Abdullah,
Najib, UMNO (the dominant partner in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition),
and the Labu and Labi (the comedic team in P. Ramlees’ movies) dysfunctional
duo of Najib and Muhyiddin.
I conclude on a
cautionary note. My worse fear is that Malaysia would end up as a Pakistan and
Nigeria combined, wrecked with religious intolerance and extremism while its
economy and social structure crumbled under the weight of corruption. Like its
flagship Malaysia Airlines, formerly Malaysia Airline System or MAS (Malay word
for gold), the country too has lost its lustre. Like the company’s shares,
formerly blue chip Malaysia is today a penny stock.
evolution of my thoughts, within each section I have arranged the essays
I derive no pleasure
in penning these critical commentaries. I would prefer writing complimentary
columns extolling the virtues and accomplishments of Malaysian leaders. At
least then Malaysians could benefit and I could glow in the reflected glory.
My earlier essays had
been compiled in two previous books, Seeing
Malaysia My Way (2004) and Moving
Malaysia Forward (2008). I thank readers for their comments. Space does not
permit me to include some of the more perceptive responses and robust rebuttals
as I did in Seeing Malaysia My Way.
M. Bakri Musa
Morgan Hill, CA
December 2014 Next Week: Excerpt #4: From Blue Chip T.to Penny Stock
and Najib squandered Malaysia’s precious first decade into the new millennium.
It was a wasted if not lost decade. It would be academic to judge who is worse,
Abdullah or Najib. When both scored “Fs”, it matters less whether one is F
minus and the other simply an F.
is little prospect for change, at least until the next election due no later
than mid 2018. Even if there were to be divine intervention, Najib’s deputy,
Muhyiddin, is no better. Malaysia is doomed; it cannot escape its present sorry
nations do not progress, then ipso facto
they regress. Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable, noted Martin
Luther King. Corruption in Malaysia is now approaching the “tipping point”
where it would be irreversible and permanently cripple the nation a la Nigeria. Meanwhile religious
fanaticism continues unabated, abetted by Najib and his deputy. That too may
soon reach the point of no return when Malaysia would be another Pakistan. Then
Malaysia would be a Nigeria and Pakistan combined, wrecked with crippling
corruption and haunted by religious fanaticism.
two challenges are crippling enough but there are others, as with the
deteriorating institutions. In the judiciary, even senior judges think that
their job is to protect their paymaster, the government. Likewise, the Election
Commission sees itself as an agency of ruling Barisan coalition.
these are obvious to ordinary citizens; they do not need reminders from august
bodies like the UN. Its Human Development Index showed that Malaysia improved
by 1.05 percent in the decade of 1980-90; and 1.12 from 1990-2000. During the
decade 2000-13, it grew only half as much (0.58), justifying my calling it the
UNHDP Index is buried amongst the tons of all-too-frequent glowing reports by
foreign consultants and international bodies, all paid for handsomely by the
government of Malaysia. It took a catastrophic tragedy as with the
disappearance of Malaysian Airline Flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on
March 8, 2014 to expose on the world stage the nation’s inattentive military
radar operators and bumbling ministers. Malaysian leaders could not answer even
simple questions from the families of the victims.
fairness to Abdullah and Najib, the rot did not develop overnight. The Malaysia
of today is still burdened by Mahathir’s legacy, quite apart from his role in
anointing Abdullah and Najib.
is Malaysia, so the race factor is never far from the surface. Already
Muhyiddin, Najib’s deputy and presumptive successor, is threatening the nation
with another “May 13,” the horrific race riot of 1969. That is Muhyiddin,
always looking back, never forward. His is the collective mindset and caliber
of UMNO leadership, consumed with fighting the last battle.
issues they should be confronting are far different. Rampant corruption,
deteriorating institutions, vicious religious extremism, and an entrenched
rentier economy, among others, are what would doom Malaysia.
the racism and ethnic viruses can easily be reactivated (look at Northern
Ireland and the Balkans), Malaysia has a low probability for another
interracial conflagration of the 1969 variety despite attempts by the likes of
Muhyiddin to scare citizens, especially non-Malays.
Excerpt #3: Intra-racial
(Specifically Intra-Malay) Conflict Greater Threat Than Inter-racial
Malaysia’s Wasted Decade 2004-2014.The Toxic Triad of Abdullah, Najib and UMNO Leadership
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad stunned his followers when he
announced his resignation at his UMNO’s General Assembly in June 2002. He had
been in office for over 22 years. The unexpected announcement triggered mass
hysteria among his followers. Senior ministers and party leaders openly wept,
and pandemonium broke out in the hall.
The scene resembled a
chicken coop at dusk when the birds were settling down in their comfort zone
when suddenly their head rooster flew the coop, or attempted to. The cacophony
settled down and calm returned only after senior leaders cajoled Mahathir to
delay his retirement until October 31st the following year, and he
hysteria and mass crying were reflective of how dependent UMNO members were on
Mahathir. He was their messiah, and now he was abandoning them.
Abdullah Badawi as his successor, and five years later Najib Razak took over
from Abdullah. The handover from Mahathir to Abdullah went smoothly, with both
formally dressed in their traditional Malay baju
and samping sutra as they smiled and
shook hands while exchanging the instrument of office in front of the King. The
next day Prime Minister Abdullah awarded Mahathir and his wife the nation’s
highest honor, the Tunship.
The shift from
Abdullah to Najib five years later also went smoothly, at least on the surface,
with beaming smiles all around. Prime Minister Najib also awarded Abdullah his
Tunship, as well as one to his new wife who had no discernible service to the
nation. That seeming cordiality and civility however could not mask the earlier
intrigue and shadow plays engaged by both leaders.
Abdullah and Najib may
have been consumed with their own shadow play nonetheless there was no
mistaking who was the master puppeteer. Mahathir directly picked Abdullah, and
then forced Abdullah to choose Najib.
Soon upon assuming
office, Abdullah sought a mandate and secured an overwhelming victory in 2004,
eclipsing and embarrassing Mahathir’s less-than-stellar performance in 1999.
Abdullah’s boys (his advisers were all males) made sure that no one missed the
comparison. Being amateurs and new to the game, they treated their victory as
the ultimate trophy and failed to capitalize on it.
They or rather their
patron Abdullah paid dearly for that neglect. In the following election of
2008, his coalition suffered a humiliating setback. It was returned to power
but with a hugely reduced majority at the federal level, while losing five
states to the opposition.
Mahathir saw his error
with Abdullah soon after the latter took office. Even Abdullah’s 2004
impressive electoral win did not persuade Mahathir otherwise. That victory
however, blunted Mahathir’s withering criticisms, reducing him to a grumpy old
man. With Abdullah’s subsequent electoral setback, Mahathir was emboldened and
his criticisms gained traction, amply aided by Abdullah’s own inept performance.
His forced ignominious resignation in October 2009 gave way to Najib, with
enthusiastic support from Mahathir, at least initially.
Mahathir is a poor
judge of talent and character. His initial enthusiasm for Najib, as with
Abdullah, was misplaced and soon soured. When Najib subsequently suffered an
even worse electoral humiliation than Abdullah in the May 2013 election,
Mahathir ratcheted up his scorn for Najib, labeling him a “weak leader.” He
openly expressed his regret for his earlier support for Najib and publicly
rebuked him. To date, a much older and less vigorous Mahathir has yet to be
successful in undoing his error with Najib. Malaysia remains cursed with
Najib’s clueless and rudderless leadership.