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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Malaysians And Their National Laguage

Malaysians and Their National Language
M. Bakri Musa
I was lost in the vicinity of the Malaysian Indian Congress-sponsored college (TAFE) in Seremban not too long ago and asked a student for directions.
            “I am sorry I don’t speak Malay!” he responded, an air of pride betraying his feigned apology. Thinking he might be a foreigner, I asked where he was from–Sentul!
            That reflected another glaring deficiency of Malaysian education. Imagine, a college student, a Malaysian in Malaysia, locally-born and bred yet not being able to speak the national language! Before you unleash your outrage on that poor soul, consider that we have Members of Parliament who cannot speak Malay. It seems absurd that their parties would even dare put them up as candidates in the first place. Worse, why did we vote them in? It would take a great effort on the part of Malaysians not to learn the national language–the language of the street and of the majority in the country and region.
            That is a sore point with Malays. We have Malaysians who profess to love their country and endlessly proclaim their pride to be its citizens yet make no effort to learn its national language. That is unacceptable and mocks their patriotic declarations.
            This unwillingness of some to speak Malay is a none-too-subtle expression of contempt for the language as well as for Malay culture and ethos. It is this sentiment that poisons race relations. As this is such a highly volatile emotional issue, Malays are understandably less likely to respond rationally in return. Malays are not alone in responding thus. In Germany, there is open and official displeasure for immigrants who do not fully assimilate into the German culture, meaning specifically to be fluent in German. In America, there is increasing resentment of those who do not speak English, and America does not even have an official language! In America only public schools that use English as the medium of instruction could get state funding. You can have Chinese or Spanish schools; just do not expect any state support!
            Malay irrationality on this issue of national language comes in many guises. One is the call, heard with increasing boldness and shrillness, to abolish vernacular schools. This comes not only from extremists but also moderates and well-meaning Malaysians concerned with the increasing segregation and polarization of the young. By forcing our children to attend only our national schools, so the rationale goes, we help integrate future citizens. At the very least they will learn our national language. If that were the only issue, there is much merit to that assertion.
            Malays should view this issue with an open mind. Our collective pride may be bruised when non-Malays belittle our language or deem it unworthy of their intellectual effort, but so what? Even if all non-Malays were to be fluent in Malay, adopt Malay names and culture, it still would not help Malays. In fact, I argue that would make us look even worse. Consider if non-Malays became so adept at our national language that the best novels in Malay were written by them? That would really show us up! Forcing non-Malays to attend national schools and be fluent in our language will not in any way improve the status of the Malay community. While it would certainly make them better Malaysians, in that they would know the national and fellow Malaysians better, that would not in any way contribute to the betterment of Malays. My focus, as it should be for Malay leaders, is how to better the Malay community. Once we Malays contribute our share to the economic, social, and intellectual development of Malaysia, our influence in would increase in tandem, and with that our language. All other matters such as whether non-Malays be fluent in Malay are irrelevant and distracting.
            Let’s put the national language issue in perspective. Most Malaysians can speak Malay. Unless you are exceptionally talented or entrepreneurial, you are not likely to succeed in Malaysia unless you can speak Malay. The language that counts is the language of your customers; in Malaysia 65 percent of your customers are Malays or Malay-speaking. If you include Indonesia, you have a potential market of a quarter billion Malay-speaking customers. You would be plain stupid to ignore that.
            There is something odd, and it sticks out like an ugly wart on an otherwise unblemished face, about these Malay language nationalists. The more strident they are, the more likely they are to be English-educated. The shrillest of all, its grand old lady, is the linguist Nik Safiah Karim. She is of my generation, and like me, had an all-English education. She once asserted that no more than five percent of Malays need to know English; the rest could do with knowing only Malay. Left unsaid is that her children and grandchildren should be in that super select group. Such hypocrisy!
            Malays should differentiate between two crucial issues. One is the development of Malay language, the other, the betterment of Malays. The two are distinct and separate issues; strategies to help one may not be useful and in fact may hinder the second. I am more concerned with the latter. Once Malays are developed, our language too would in tandem. If our community is bankrupt socially, economically, and intellectually, rest assured our language would go down the drain together with the status of our community. Our language would then be of interest only to anthropologists. Mandarin now commands the world’s attention because of China’s increasing economic might.
            Developing the Malay language is less of a challenge. Contrary to the frequent hysterical assertions of the language nationalists, a language spoken by nearly a quarter of a billion people is unlikely to disappear; it simply cannot be ignored. Nor is it likely to be eradicated even if there were to be an official policy suppressing it.
            Their loud shrill protests aside, these language nationalists could be mollified with ease. One would be to make proficiency in Malay a requirement before you could get your professional or trade license. Before you are able to practice as a lawyer, doctor, or any profession, you must demonstrate competency in the national language. This makes sense as many of the regulations are written in Malay and substantial portions of your clients speak the language. In America, despite its lack of an official language, you cannot get your license as a professional or tradesman unless you can demonstrate your competency in English. All the qualifying tests are in English.
            Another would be to require voters to demonstrate their proficiency in our language. How can you be an informed voter if you cannot understand Malay as the government’s businesses and the political discourses are in that language? As with any law, it should not be made retroactive; meaning, it should apply only to those currently not registered as voters. Existing registered voters would be unaffected.
            Malay language nationalists and champions of Memartabatkan Bahasa (Dignify/respect our language) should advocate this instead of rescinding the teaching of science and mathematics in English. The first initiative would make voters more informed about national affairs; the second would only disadvantage our young. Should PERKASA were to advocate the first, it would find many ready supporters.
            Recently, the head of the Malaysian Chinese Association and a former cabinet minister expressed his disgust at what he considered to be “an uncivilized” aspect of Islamic culture when a female candidate from the opposition Islamic Party declined to partake in the usual hand-shaking greetings. It is astounding to think that this former minister who was also a physician could be so utterly ignorant of Islamic cultural sensitivities. How did he deal with his Muslim patients?
            In California, if physicians were to display such gross ignorance of the cultural sensitivities of their patients, and then be stupid or arrogant enough to display that ignorance, they would risk being disciplined by the Medical Board. At the very least you would be exposing yourself to medical and other liabilities.
            At least that TAFE student was smart enough to feign embarrassment; the minister however displayed no hint of contrition even after he ignited a storm of controversy with fellow party leaders of his coalition, specifically UMNO.
            Those ugly exceptions aside, Malaysians generally are a tolerant lot. This is the consequence of our multiculturalism. It also grants us significant advantages when we venture abroad. In the West, I can with ease distinguish Malaysian Chinese from their counterparts from Taiwan, Singapore, or Hong Kong. Decades ago Vancouver, Canada, saw an influx of immigrants from Hong Kong just before the handing over of that colony back to China. Today we have Mainland Chinese coming in. It did not take them long to run afoul with the city’s zoning laws when they built their massive homes on tiny city lots, and with their awful gaudy color schemes. What would have been acceptable in Beijing or Hong Kong triggered the wrath of their new Canadian neighbors.
            If you have a small mind, you believe the rest of the world likes what you like. Step into any shopping mall in Malaysia and you will be immediately assaulted with the sound of some Taiwanese pop princess intent on bursting your eardrums. Those merchants think everyone else likes what they like. Presumably those are the same idiots who complained aloud about the call of the Azzan!
Next:  Liberation Through Science

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Criticisms of American Liberal Education

Criticisms of American Liberal Education
M. Bakri Musa
My praise for American liberal education notwithstanding, there is no shortage of criticisms of the system. Allan Bloom may be among the earliest and harshest, but you could have a small library compiling books, monographs, and essays critical of the system. A few years ago The New York Review of Books carried an article reviewing eight such books, including one co-written by the former president of Princeton University.
            Examine the typical American high school today; it is huge. The largest has an enrollment exceeding 5,000. As there are only four high school years, this means the graduating class would have about 1,250 students. That is less a school, more a huge human educational factory or warehouse. Many American schools now have policemen patrolling and metal detectors. Still that had not prevented great tragedies like the Columbine High School massacre of 1999 that shocked the nation.
            The physical challenges brought on by the sheer massive size of these institutions aside, there are other even greater non-physical crises. For the most part they are hidden and consequently become entrenched and pervasive.
            Then there are the exorbitant and rising costs of college which defy rational explanations. They are then hidden by the ready availability of student loans. Those loans contribute to the problem as universities can now raise fees with impunity. Economists predict that the next financial crisis in America will be with student loans. The scale and impact would be much bigger than the current [2008] housing bust.
            Then there is the faculty. At many universities especially the top ones, professors are more akin to full-time researchers, with teaching a chore to be avoided at all costs. Professors brag about “protected time” from teaching, that being the new badge of honor! Teaching falls increasingly on over-worked adjunct (part-time) faculty and graduate students.
            More alarming, researchers at universities are mostly funded by industry or special interest groups, thus calling into question the integrity of their work. An alumnus of Harvard Business School related how the luminaries there were heaping praises on Royal Bank of Scotland’s management right up to the bank’s collapse. No surprise there as those professors were highly-paid consultants to the bank at the time.
            At the other end of the spectrum is the corrupting influence of lucrative collegiate sports. On many campuses, the highest paid and most influential individual is not the president or the brilliant professors, but the football coach!
            Those criticisms do not detract from the value of the American broad-based liberal education. It aims to produce “T” graduates, depth in one field with interest and general understanding across broad areas. In contrast, the Malaysian system we inherited from the British produces “I” graduates with narrowly focused skills and interests.
            The world now recognizes the value of a liberal education. China, India, and Japan (indeed the world) send their best students to America. These countries are also busy enticing American colleges to set up branch campuses in their home countries. The greatest concentration of American colleges is in the Middle East, specifically the Gulf States. Within a generation this will prove transformational for the Arab world. Already in Egypt, the most prestigious university (where the elite send their children and where the graduates are highly sought after) is not the centuries-old Al Azhar but the American University in Cairo, established less than a hundred years ago. Likewise, despite the turmoil in Lebanon, the American University in Beirut remains the crown jewel of Arab intellectual achievement.
            My concern is not with the American criticisms of its system, rather those coming from commentators and intellectuals of the developing world, specifically Malaysia. Those criticisms carry much more weight with local policymakers and parents.
            To these Malaysian critics, American liberal education is devoid of “values” and geared only to serve the needs of the economic machinery of its capitalistic system. They hold up as exemplary the Islamic education system with its objective of producing “good” citizens inculcated with the “correct” moral values. To these critics, unless you believe in God, (not any God however, only the God that they pray to), you cannot be moral, ethical, or “good.”
            These critics belittle the achievements of Western education in producing competent engineers and scientists, denouncing them as mere “tools” of the capitalistic economy. That may well be, but by being those “tools” these graduates are serving and contributing to the good of society. When American universities produce competent engineers who design safe jet planes, the whole world benefits; likewise when the system produces scientists who discover vaccines against major killers like polio. Those graduates fit the Islamic definition of being soleh.
            There was one critic worthy of special mention because of the wide reception of his views especially in the Muslim world, the acclaimed sociologist Syed Hussein Alatas. He accused the Western system of education of perpetrating “intellectual imperialism,” imposing its views on students and scholars from the developing world. They in turn are guilty of having a “captive mind,” which he defined as an “uncritical and imitative mind dominated by an external source, whose thinking is deflected from an independent perspective.” That external source is of course Western scholarship.
            I commend Syed Hussein’s take on the social sciences but when he tried to extend his observation to the natural sciences, he was on “thin ice,” to use an English metaphor. To Syed Hussein, my using that metaphor reflects this Western intellectual imperialism. Otherwise, he would presumably argue, I would use a different metaphor, like stepping on a banana peel. That would be more in tune with our tropical environment, quite apart from being more readily understood by those from the tropics.
            That aside, Syed’s observation carries considerable truth. In the early years of the University of Malaya, its leaders and policymakers were more obsessed with replicating a jungle version of Oxford and Cambridge than making a university of Malaya, meaning one that would serve the specific needs of the local society.
            Far too often what goes on at local campuses bears little relevance to the surrounding reality. Malaysia desperately needs English teachers, yet not one local university has a Department of English. Likewise, rubber and tin are our two major resources, yet there is very little research into either commodity done on Malaysian campuses. The same goes for endemic local parasitic diseases like dengue.
            Syed Hussein was correct in citing the lack of creativity of students from developing countries who have had the benefit of superior education at Western universities. I once asked a Malaysian professor why he had not contributed any original published work since getting his doctorate from an Ivy League university. When he noted that I was not impressed with his ready excuse of heavy administrative burdens, he tried others, such as inadequate support facilities like libraries. He obviously had not heard of the Internet. Indeed, many journals and research institutions now give free membership (and thus access to publications and research findings) if you identify yourself as a scholar or faculty from the developing world.
            I agree with Syed Hussein when he chastised Third World graduates and scholars who have had the benefit of superior education afforded at leading Western universities for exhibiting “captive minds” and not demonstrating creativity when solving local problems. I disagree with him however, when he faulted those institutions and their faculties.
            Many of the innovations and creative thinking in the developing world today are the products of minds nurtured at leading Western universities. The good Syed was Exhibit One, as he had a British PhD. Those “captive minds” that Syed Hussein condemned are more likely to be the products of Third World universities including such leading ones as Al Azhar. I cannot think of any innovation, Islamic or otherwise, that emanates from that institution.
            Western secular, humanistic liberal education may have many faults but it is still superior to what is being offered elsewhere. That is a good enough reason for Malaysia to embrace it.
Next:  Malaysians and the National Language

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016