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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

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

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Rot In Malaysian Education - Introduction I

 The Rot In Malaysian Education And Other Essays:



M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)


First of Two Parts


Way back in the 1990s and until not too long ago, the Year 2020 was much anticipated in Malaysia. It promised to be a glamorous one, a “coming out” event of sorts to mark Malaysia achieving her Vision 2020 aspirations. That was to be the year when she would be joining the exclusive club of developed nations.


We are now well into 2020 and not a word is being uttered on that once-lofty goal. No celebrations, no hoopla. All silent. It is as if there is a massive national conspiracy not to bring up the topic. Too embarrassing!


Malaysia is way far short of achieving her Vision 2020 goals set back in 1990, a generation earlier. All those grandiose visions were but, as we Malays would put it, angan angan Mat Jenin (the wild fantasies of Mat Jenin–the lovable clown in Malay folklore).


The man who articulated that grand plan was one Mahathir Mohamad. He resigned as Prime Minister in 2003 after being at the helm for nearly 23 years. Then in May 2018 following an electoral upset, he was back as Prime Minister, his second time around after a hiatus of over a decade and a half, and now at 93 years old. Not for long however, for 22 months later he resigned. Instead of an outpouring of grief and pleading for his return as when he quit in 2003, this time he was ignored. Later he was out-maneuvered when he tried a comeback, an over-cocky flying squirrel that overestimated the strength of the branch he was about to land on, or his skill, and thus crashed to the ground. His groveling today to get back his old position and power is not a pretty sight, in fact downright pathetic.


Mahathir first put forth his vision for the future of Malaysia in an address to the Malaysian Business Council in 1989. This was followed by a series of essays under the title “The Way Forward.” The country then was still the darling of the West, recognized as an emerging economic power, another potential Asian Tiger though not quite yet on par with Taiwan, Singapore, or South Korea. A British publisher later put those essays in a slim volume with the same title.


Mahathir’s vision caught on and became the basis of his Sixth Malaysia Plan introduced in 1991. It was to be the nation’s blueprint for development for the next thirty years, the span of a generation, to end on–auspiciously–2020. As “The Way Forward” did not quite have a zing to it, the plan was later dubbed “Vision 2020.”


Mahathir eschewed the traditional criteria of a developed society, dismissing them as the parochial inventions of the West. He fancied that he could better such traditional markers as the per capita income, level of industrialization, or the Human Development Index. Instead, he envisioned “a united Malaysian nation with a sense of common and shared destiny.” His other goals were equally nebulous if not corny, as with a society that would be “robust,” “economically just,” and “psychologically liberated.”


His paean to measurable goals (and modern economics) was the doubling of the Malaysian GDP every decade, or an eight-fold increase from its 1990 base. That would assume a consistent 7 percent annual growth. Quite a challenge, although South Korea and later China plus a few other nations had done it.


Mahathir’s Vision 2020 fantasy was rudely interrupted by the 1997 Asian contagion. He blamed the West for its rapacious capitalism that gave rise to such celebrated “greedy” currency speculators as George Soros. Then as if not challenged enough by that economic crisis, Mahathir created a much unneeded and nearly crippling accompanying political crisis by picking a fight with his hitherto deputy and presumed heir-apparent, Anwar Ibrahim.


Having steered Malaysia through that treacherous stretch of political and economic turmoil, he retired in 2003 and handed power to his handpicked successor, Abdullah Badawi. Ever the poor judge of talent, Mahathir’s dud and soporific Abdullah nearly destroyed Malaysia, not willfully but through indifferent neglect. Mahathir then engineered to have Najib Razak take over. Sleepyhead Abdullah was not awake enough to know what had happened to him.


If Mahathir had erred with Abdullah, then Najib was a disaster several quanta beyond. The current 1MDB debacle is one of many Najib’s ugly legacies. He is now awaiting jailtime for corruption, pending appeal.


Bless Mahathir, for even though the man was 93 years old and had gone through a very serious “redo” heart bypass surgery in 2007 followed by a long recuperation, he, together with a now-invigorated opposition coalition crafted by his erstwhile nemesis Anwar Ibrahim, dislodged Najib’s Barisan coalition in the 2018 election.


Mahathir now has a convenient excuse for his failed Vision 2020. During its first decade he could convince himself and Malaysians if not the world that it was the West that did in Malaysia. In the second decade into Vision 2020, he blamed the incompetent Abdullah, and the third, Najib with his insatiable greed. Yes, that crooked Najib nearly wrecked Malaysia with his 1MDB heist.


Mahathir may have convinced himself as well as others in blaming currency speculators as well as Abdullah and Najib for his failure to lead Malaysia into that elusive and exclusive “developed nation” status, but he does not convince me.


Vision 2020 failed because of a much more simple and fundamental reason – the inadequacies of the nation’s education system.


Next:  Introduction:  Second of Two Parts


Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Rot In Malaysian Education and Other Essays

 The Rot In Malaysian Education And Other Essays

M. Bakri Musa   (www.bakrimusa.com)





ISBN  979-8646611056;  349 pp; May 2020. $12.95

E-version (available at Amazon.com)  $2.95


Book Description


This collection of the writer’s commentaries traces the continuing decline of Malaysian education at all levels. The rot has been going on for decades, with the slope becoming distressingly steep despite successive Administrations professing to reverse the trend and transform the system. Today the challenges are as monumental as they are obvious while the remedies offered are nothing but repeated assurances and earnest statements, coupled with endless Blueprints and White Papers.


Notwithstanding the widespread anxiety, one cannot help but conclude this outcome is precisely what Malaysian leaders (or to be more specific, Malay leaders) seek. This sorry state cannot be the result of neglect or incompetence, rather a willful decision to let the system rot. An educated citizen capable of critical and independent thinking would be anathema to these leaders as that would mean the end of the current feudal system, and with that, the current power structure and brand of leadership. In short, a threat to the establishment and existing order.


            Malaysian parents have long ago abandoned the national stream, at least those who could afford it. In the past they were mostly non-Malays, leading Malay chauvinists to label them as unpatriotic or even traitors. To non-Malays in Johore, Malaysian education is irrelevant as they could opt for the far superior schools in Singapore.


Today an increasing number of Malays too are fleeing the system. That is the greatest indictment of the system, much to the chagrin of Malay leaders. The rich opt for international schools, which are mushrooming. The poor (and not so poor) Malays opt for Chinese schools, to the embarrassment of Malay leaders and nationalists who themselves have opted for international schools. This hypocrisy, obvious to all, escapes them.


Malaysia does not need comparative data like scores on TIMMS and PISA to show how rotten is the current system. Malaysia expends considerable resources to participate in those studies but is not learning, or more correctly refuses to learn from them.


The result is that Malaysians are now rare on elite campuses. Meanwhile Malaysian employers shun local graduates, and the teaching profession no longer attracts the best.


The Ministry of Education, the largest and with ever-increasing allocations, is blighted by inept management and bloated bureaucracy intent on pursuing narrow nationalistic and Islamist agendas. Worse, each successive Minister is consumed with exploiting the prestige (what little there is left) of the office to further his personal and political agenda.


Even when the rare enlightened policies were instituted, as with opening up higher education to the private sector in the mid 1990s by then Education Minister Najib Razak, the process was exploited to become lucrative conduits for corruption. Najib granted nearly 600 permits in a space of just two years! No wonder he had no difficulty funding his campaign to be UMNO Youth President at the time. More than half of those new institutions went out of business within a few years, stranding their students and crushing their dreams, quite apart from literally robbing them and their parents.


The 2018 elections saw a new government with a Minster of Education who for the first time was not from the dominant United Malay National Organization (UMNO) party. An Islamic Studies graduate from a Middle Eastern university but with a British doctorate, his first order of business was to change the color of school children’s shoes from white to black! The only saving grace was that he was canned just over a year after taking office. Now (January 2020) the Ministry is back under Mahathir who in addition is also the Prime Minister. By February Mahathir too was out, finally outwitted by his own endless political scheming.


As an unnecessary reminder, it was Mahathir who as Minister of Education back in the 1970s who initiated the rot. It was Mahathir who, to endear himself to the nationalists and jihadists, squandered instead of building on what was then the nation’s most precious asset, the high English fluency and literacy of her students. Now Mahathir blames Malays for refusing to recognize the importance of English. And he does so without even a hint of regret or embarrassment!


Today Malaysian education at all levels has been taken over by the language nationalists and religious jihadists intent on making Malaysia “Malay” and “Islamic.” The nationalists add their chauvinistic and very “un-Islamic” Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony) aspirations to the mix. As such schools’ curriculum is now heavy on mindless ritualistic religion and strident language nationalism. Indoctrination now masquerades as education. The situation is no better at universities.


This glaring disconnect between the Ministry’s agenda and reality is obvious to all but those bureaucrats, policymakers, and educators. Consider that while Malaysia is in desperate need of teachers of English, the national university does not have a dedicated Department of English. Likewise, while everyone clamors for young Malaysians to think critically, not one Malaysian university has a Department of Philosophy.


The need to emphasize the basics in Malaysian schools is never more acute than now. The four core subjects of Malay, English, science, and mathematics should be taught daily at all levels and in all schools. Recognizing the establishment’s inertia, the writer advocates liberalizing the system at all levels by opening it up to the private sector via the voucher system a la Chile and encouraging charter schools as per America.

Malaysian schools must once again prepare her young for the modern interconnected and increasingly competitive world as well as be the pivotal instrument for integrating them.

As per the wisdom of our great Munshi Abdullah, the minds of our young should be regarded as parang to be sharpened, and not as the current classroom philosophy would have it, dustbins to be filled with dogmas. The most you would get from the latter is what you put in, minus what’s stuck to the bottom.

On the other hand there are no limits to what one could do with a sharp parang. At the very least you could hack yourself out when lost in the jungle. To a surgeon, a sharp scalpel (a sophisticated parang if you will) is an instrument to cure cancer; to an artist, to create exquisite works of art. To a thug a parang is but a lethal weapon. That is where values or moral aspects (religion if you like) of education come in. Unfortunately in Malaysia, Islamic instructions are consumed with rituals, that is when those religious instructors are not obsessed with how many virgins the pious would get in the Hereafter.

Malaysian schools should prepare her young for the modern globalized world and be the pivotal instrument for integrating her young. Any other objectives would only degrade those two central missions. In essence, this collection of essays updates the author’s earlier book, An Education System Worthy Of Malaysia (2003).


Next:  Introduction to The Rot In Malaysian Education And Other Essays.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Remembering That Special Day, August 31, 1957

 Remembering That Special Day, August 31, 1957


M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)



August 31st, 1957 was a day of ebullient celebrations and unrestrained joy throughout Malaysia (or Malaya as it was then known). Rightly so for on that special day the long oppressive yoke of colonialism was finally lifted off our collective necks. We had our Merdeka!


I was then in lower secondary school. In our kampung house however, the mood was anything but jubilant. The day before my father had warned us, my siblings and me, to remain at home. That family curfew would continue till the day after. In contrast to the national celebratory mood, in our house there was only heightened anxiety. The extra supply of food and other necessities my parents had bought days earlier testified and added to that jitteriness.


My parents’ paranoia was not unfounded. A decade earlier they had seen ghastly images in the newspapers of the mass madness that had gripped and consumed the Indian subcontinent when it heralded its independence. Next door in Indonesia, the situation was no better for them. A decade of independence and President Sukarno had to urge his people to trap rats, thus solving the twin blights plaguing his young nation – mass starvation and rodent infestation. At home in the power vacuum at the end of World War II, there was the two-week reign of terror inflicted by the Malayan Communist Party.


More immediately, a few days before merdeka my father overheard a conversation among his fellow villagers. They were giddy with their plans to seize those elegant bungalows in Kuala Pilah for themselves, and drive out those colonials like my school headmaster. My father threw a damper on that idea. If those houses were to revert to the natives, he told the kampung wannabe heroes, rest assured that they would not be the lucky recipients. Besides, who would teach our children if those British teachers were to leave?


So on that day at midnight, to the delirious chanting of “Merdeka! Merdeka!” on the radio and everywhere, my father would mock, “MencakarMencakar!” (Scraping, as in scraping for a living.)


A decade later my parents would readily admit to the error of their earlier grim forebodings. Bless them! Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tengku Abdul Rahman had stuck to his words of “building schools instead of barracks, and training teachers instead of soldiers.” In the seven-mile drive from my village to my old school in Kuala Pilah for example, no fewer than seven new primary schools were being built, and my older brother and sister were among the thousands trained as teachers.


Malaysians have much to be grateful to Tengku beyond his saving the nation from an unnecessary war of independence. Thus on this Merdeka Day, Malaysians have no embellished reenactments of glorious battles and solemn rituals of honoring fallen heroes. Malaysians, unlikeAmericans, are thankfully spared our Bunker Hills and Paul Reveres.


As Tengku had kept his pledge of building schools and training teachers, young Malaysians like me were able to pursue our dreams. In the final analysis, that is the most precious and enduring gift a leader could bestow upon his nation.


This year, 2020, was to be Malaysia’s “coming-out” party marking her entry into the exclusive club of developed nations, the crowning achievement of her long-time Prime Minister Mahathir. Instead, she is cursed with a government that is bloated, corrupt, and incompetent, and her citizens deeply and dangerously polarized.


Malaysia is now known for her 1MDB notoriety, the world’s most expensive swindle, perpetrated by former Prime Minister Najib Razak. The price tag of that, though humongous and escalating, is at least quantifiable. Not so the divisions he had sowed and continue to sow among Malaysians.


Mahathir’s much ballyhooed Vision 2020 proved to be but a cruel hoax. Beyond that, he cannot absolve himself of the responsibility for the rise of the sleepy Badawi, the kleptocratic Najib, and now the muddling Muhyyiddin, thus turning Malaysia into the sorry state she is in today. What an ugly legacy, obvious to all but Mahathir.


The late PAS leader Fadzil Noor once quipped for Mahathir to have a long life so he could see the follies of his policies. Fadzil Noor got only half his wish. Mahathir still deludes himself as being God’s greatest gift to Malaysia. As per the wisdom of Sa’adi’s Gulistan, “He whose fault is not told him / Ignorantly thinks his defects are virtues!”


Courtiers do not dare tell their emperor that he is naked.


Tengku was spot on when he predicted that Mahathir would destroy Malaysia. Mahathir personifies Raja Ali Haji’s Gurindam 12 aphorism:  “Tiada orang yang amat celaka / Aib dirinya tiada ia sangka.” (Cursed are those whose self-awareness is closed.)


Tengku’s enlightened vision for Malaysia has been derailed. There is much to be done to put it back on track, as well as build a stronger locomotive and straighten the tracks. Then ensure only the honest, competent, and principled be at the throttle. Only thus could Malaysians savor our Merdeka.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Makna Merdela 50 (Meaning Of Merdeka 50)


Makna Merdeka


Untuk bangsaku dirantau:  

Mungking urat mu mendalam di negri dagang!


Merdeka negara!  Merdeka bercita!

Bebas negara! Bebas bersuara!

Merdeka bukan hadiah penjajah

Kebebasan insan hasrat Allah.


Alam ku luas, borkat Illahi

Rezki ku Tuhan yang mengsukati.

Laut, gunung, sempadan tanpa ku segani

Gelombang dunia berani ku layari!


Kampung halaman bukan nya sauh

Ingin ku menghilir merantau jauh.

Di mana bumi ku pijak, di sana langit ku junjong

Selagi hati berhajat, cita ku jangan di kandung.


Hidup, bebas, bahagia, hasrat Allah

Pantang celaka lah jika di ubah.

Raja dan menteri mesti mempatuhi

Jangan kau mungkir perentah Illahi.


Rakyat negeri bukan nya kuli

Untok di kerah ka sana sini.

Zaman purba takkan kembali

Mungkin menteri yang di buang negri!


Renungkan nasib si Idi Amin

Yang Shah Pahlavi pun tak terjamin.

Pemimpim negri mesti menginggati

Rakyat – bukan raja – yang di daulati.


Tidak ku sangka songsang

Anak dagang di negri orang.

Orang kita/orang sana, tidak bermakna.

Takkan Melayu hilang di dunia

Bukan kah itu gesa Laksmana?


Urat ku mendalam di bumi asing

Loghat ku pun ikut sama mengiring

Sambal belacan dah berasa lain

Teras ku tetap Melayu tulin!


Kampung ku jauh beribu batu

Begitu juga kaum sa suku

Kalau di renung hati ku rindu

Mengenang cerita moyang ku dulu.


Anak merantua jangan diigaui

Pilu perpisahan boleh dibatasi.

Bebas! Merdeka!  Alangkah murni!

Ku peluk penuh cinta berahi!


M. Bakri Musa

Morgan Hill, California



My translation:

Meaning of Merdeka (Independence)

(For the wandering soul:  May your roots deepen in a foreign soil!)


Merdeka to the nation! Merdeka for my ambition!

Freedom of speech!  Freedom of thought!

The benevolence of colonials, merdeka is not

Free!  Unshackled!  That’s the command of the Lord.


My universe is broad, the blessing of God.

I strive, but only He knows my fate and lot.

Oceans, mountains, and boundaries faze me not

The global waves a match for my surfing board.


My village abode is not my tether

The yonder wide world beckons me thither.

Firm on ground, the heavens above I praise

And pray my dream will find its rightful place.


Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

That is Allah’s command; His measured kindness.

It is not for kings and rulers to alter

Nor put boundaries to God’s desire.


Blessed with freedom and reason are God’s children

To lords and kings we are never beholden.

The feudal order had long been toppled

Let’s be clear, the sovereign is the people.


Ponder the fate of one Idi Amin

That of Shah Pahlavi was equally grim!

These realities our leaders must heed

“Power to the People!” is the new creed.


Praise the wandering son, our true hero

Heeding the call when the distant wind blows.

This “us” versus “them” makes little sense

True to yourself, that is the essence.

Blessed our forefathers for that lesson.


My roots have deepened in this foreign soil

Affected or not, so too my Western drawl.

The spicy taste of yore has lost its punch

Still, the old Malay can, … lah!  In a crunch!


Far across the ocean the old abode beckons

My kith and kind, Oh! They readily come to mind!

As I ponder, the heart grows fonder

Reliving stories of days yonder.


The young has flown, the empty nest silent

Sadness yes, but memories remain vibrant.

Freedom!  Merdeka!  Such intoxicating beauty!

With fondness and passion, I readily embrace thee.


M. Bakri Musa

Morgan Hill, California

August 2007



Sunday, August 23, 2020

Reflections On Awal Muharram: Re-Reading The Quran

 Reflections On Awal Muharram:  Re-Reading The Quran

M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)


Review of Muhammad Shahrur’s The Quran, Morality and Critical Reason. The Essential Muhammad Shahrur. Translated and Edited by Andreas Christmann. K Brill, Leidin, 637 pp, 2009.  ISBN 9004171039§


Last Thursday August 20, 2020, after sunset, Muslims ushered in our New Year. Awal Muharram (the first of Muharram) symbolizes peace and reflection. Reflection because 1441 years ago our Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., undertook his hijrah (migration) to Medinah to escape his persecutors in Mecca. So momentous was the event that the Companions of the Prophet later decided to begin the Muslim calendar from that date.

            As for peace, there was nothing peaceful about that epochal journey. The prophet escaped an assassination attempt by having his nephew Ali sleep in his bed that night. Legend has it that Allah made the prophet invisible to his pursuers. Invisible perhaps, but not weightless for the prophet had prudently scattered dirt to cover his tracks!

            Like then, peace still eludes the ummah today. The majority are trapped in dehumanizing poverty, appalling injustices, and brutal autocracies. In the latest “Islamicity Index,” not one Muslim country made it in the top thirty.

            Volumes have been written to explain this sorry state. Some pine for Islam’s own Martin Luther. Conveniently forgotten is that during its few centuries the Islamic civilization was the beacon for the world. What went wrong?

Muhammad Shahrur’s epiphany came early. He remembered as a youngster hearing a sermon in his local mosque right after Syria was humiliated in the Six-Day War with Israel. “We have strayed far from the ways of Allah,” his Imam bellowed. “We do not fast and our women have discarded their hijabs,” he excoriated his flock.

Israeli women wore bikinis, yet their armies prevailed, Shahrur reflected. That prompted his lifelong self-study of the Quran. No easy task for a man who was a professional engineer (Dublin PhD) with a thriving consultancy, quite apart from his academic duties.

Shahrur dispensed with those voluminous ancient treatises. Those are what produced today’s ulama and scholars like his Imam, he reasoned. To his scientific mind that would be akin to reading Freud and Jung when the world is into neurotransmitters and dynamic brain imaging.

Shahrur began writing in the 1990s, and until his death last year he had published over a dozen books and countless essays, and been interviewed numerous times. Though ignored by the establishment (lucky; he could have been branded an apostate and dealt with accordingly), he was (and still is) a phenomenon among literate Arabs. The Quran, Morality and Critical Reason:  The Essential Muhammad Shahrur, a translation, is his only book in English.

To Shahrur – and all Muslims – the Quran is Allah’s words, “for all mankind at all times and till the end of time.” It explains itself, a la Christianity’s sola scriptura. Shahrur was advantaged and emboldened to re-read the Quran asArabic was his mother tongue.

He began with the concept of non-synonymity. Allah is precise in his choice of words. Thus Al Kitab (The Book) and Al Quran must not mean the same thing. When Allah used both in the same ayat (sentence), it is not for reasons of style. They have separate distinct meanings; it is for us to discern them. To Shahrur, the Quran as we know it consists of two parts. One, the early Meccan verses expressing universal values and aspirations. He called that the Al Kitab (The Book). That contains the same revelations dispensed to earlier prophets like Jesus and Moses. They are but variations on the theme of the Ten Commandments.

Two is Al Quran, which adds to the confusion. It comprises the Medinan ayats revealed as the Prophet was establishing the first Muslim community. Those dealt with the practical realities of governance in 7th Century Arabia. By necessity those revelations have to be in forms and language comprehensible to and executable by his constituents. Our error, now and in the past, is in reducing the prophet to Allah’s fax machine, mechanically and mindlessly spouting out His message.

To make the Quran relevant to contemporary society, Shahrur would have us read and interpret it as if it was revealed yesterday. Only then could it be as transformative to us as it was for those ancient Bedouins. Consider that had Allah chosen His Last Messenger to be an Eskimo, would the Quran’s imagery of Hell be one of blazing eternal fire or a dark frozen dungeon?

The late Fazlur Rahman had a comparable approach to the Quran. That is, deduce from its particularities the underlying governing principles (connect the dots as it were), and then apply them to current challenges. Both demand considerable intellectual exertions. Endlessly quoting the Quran, no matter how exquisite the tajweed, would not do it.

There are many apparent contradictions in the Quran. The Meccan verses assert there be no compulsion in religion; the Medinah, kill the apostates. Ancient scholars applied the concept of abrogation to reconcile those differences, whereby later verses “abrogate” earlier ones.

Shahrur rejected that. Allah is Perfect and All-Knowing. He does not need revisions, editing, or abrogating of His words. Instead, the Medinah verses reflected the specific challenges facing the early Muslims as they struggled to deal with their enemies intent on destroying this new movement that was challenging the existing order. Those Medinah verses are thus the exceptions to the central message of Al Kitab; the exceptions proving the general rule.

To Shahrur, the Quran cannot contradict what we know from our senses and rational thinking. If our observations show that the earth rotates around the sun, then that must be so. If the Holy Book were to say otherwise, then we have misread it. Thus Islam was spared Christianity’s Copernicus conundrum.

Shahrur’s take on Surah An Nisaa (Women) was most enlightening. He read it as per ancient word usage, not formal Arabic grammar. That was not developed till long after the Quran was revealed. He made the point that the masculine and feminine forms in those ayats refer not to men or women, rather leaders (the dominant partner, who may be men or women) and followers (who may be likewise), and the dynamic relationship between the two. Thus those ayats have wide applicability beyond the family, as with organizations.

That is a more sophisticated reading than the contorted interpretations of Muslim feminists. Husbands disciplining their wives should thus be read more generically, as with leaders their wayward followers. Malay leaders would do well to reread Surah An Nisaa as per Shahrur’s insight.

His other significant contribution is the concept of limits, derived from his understanding of calculus and engineering. To Shahrur, Allah defines only the extremes or limits of punishments, as with cutting of hands on one end to forgiveness and restitution on the other. Within those parameters it is for society through consensus to determine the appropriate level.

Shahrur’s views resonate far beyond the Arab world. However in Indonesia, a doctoral candidate had to withdraw his dissertation on Shahrur as it triggered the wrath of local ulama and widespread howling controversy. They took umbrage at Shahrur’s interpretation on consensual sex outside of marriage. To him, the Quran condemns only where force or coercion is involved, inside or outside of marriage. This criminalization of consensual sex is a later bida’ah (adulteration of the faith).

Malaysian ulama would have rape victims marry their tormentors, and abused wives continue ‘pleasing’ their husbands. Meanwhile Muslims are comfortable with muta’ah (temporary marriages). It is said that brothels in Tehran have ulama ready to solemnize such ultra-brief ‘marriages,’ for a fee of course! Elsewhere in the secular world that is called pimping.

Back to Malaysia, the religious police should quit snooping around parks and hotels looking for khalwat (close proximity). They should instead focus on rapes, spousal abuses, and forced as well as child marriages.

My prayer on this Awal Muharram and year AH 1442 is for Allah to shower His blessings on the soul of Muhammad Shahrur, and for his books getting wider reading. Muslims are in desperate need of this gush of fresh air to blow away the thick cobwebs encasing those ancient texts as well as contemporary minds.

§  Google the author and title to download a free pdf copy.


Sunday, August 16, 2020

Excerpt #75: Leaving Malaysia

 Excerpt #   75:  Leaving Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)



We stayed in Seremban during our last week and did not go anywhere except for day trips to Port Dickson and the nearby towns and villages. We wanted to maximize our memory-building time with my parents.


            The evening before we left, my parents had a family goodbye kenduri (feast). For the kids, it was their playtime again with their cousins till our next visit. That evening I felt as if I had not returned home to Malaysia, rather the last thirty months had been but a long visit, and just that. Now it was time to say goodbye till the next time.


            We left by train for Singapore the next morning. There was the usual family crowd at the station but not overwhelming, only my parents as well as my sisters and brothers with their families. The train was delayed, nothing unusual there, and that gave us plenty of time for our extended goodbyes. Because we left by train it felt as if we were just returning to JB. No reason to cry! Had we left from KL, I could just imagine the scene!


            We took the “milk run” combo passenger/freight train rather than the express line. Which meant it stopped for a long time at every station to load and unload. We had first class tickets and to the kids’ delight, we were the only passengers in the coach all the way to Singapore.


            At Gemas, the stop was so long that we had lunch at the station’s restaurant and still had time to wander around. Gemas was where the long East Coast spur connects to the main north-south line. There were a lot of movements of the train as it connected and disconnected the carriages.


            The first time that happened I put the kids on the train and I waved to them as if I was staying behind. As the train moved forward they became frantic thinking that I was being left behind. They screamed as I pretended to walk away. Then the train stopped and began its slow reverse. The kids then realized that it was just a short shunting maneuver. The next time, they played that trick on their mother, and Karen duly played the role of a frantic mother to the kids’ delight. That was our entertainment during the long stop at Gemas. Like any game with children though, they did not know when it was over. On the train’s final move, we had to literally haul the kids onboard.


            With the slow train ride we managed to see the real rural Malaysia at a pace we had never experienced before. We saw monkeys on the branches staring at us, kids tempting their fate jumping from bridges, and the deep green canopy of luxuriant ill-disciplined jungle growth on each side of the tracks, broken only by the contrasting smooth, regimented monotonous rows of rubber and palm oil trees of the commercial plantations.


            Reality soon intruded at JB with the appearance of immigration officials on board as the train left the station. I had rehearsed this scenario a thousand times and planned our strategy with alternate Schemes B, C, and even D, just in case. Our original plan was to sit away from our luggage so as to give the impression to the immigration officials that we were just going to Singapore to shop. Stacks of luggage accompanying us would not make that story credible. That plan was now inoperative as we were the only passengers in the coach. If we were to sit far away that would draw their attention to the luggage. At the last minute, we decided to sit by our suitcases. Should the officials get too inquisitive, Karen would disturb the kids so they would create a ruckus and distract the officials.


            I was soon hounded by the haunting memory of that Malay lady who came to our JB house earlier during our “open house.” She had plenty of time by now to spread the news of our departure to her husband and his friends in the immigration and tax departments to look out for a certain Bakri Musa. That thought only added to my already heightened paranoia.


            When the official entered our coach, I pretended to get something from my backpack for the kids while Karen handed him our passports. He flipped through, stamped, and returned them. Then out he went; not a word was said. We were not out of the woods yet. He and his colleagues were still on board.


            It was not till the last stop just before we crossed the causeway to Singapore when the inspectors disembarked did we heave a huge sigh of relief. We hugged each other for the smooth passage. We felt liberated!


            Years later I would see the movie “The Year of Living Dangerously,” of an Australian journalist caught in Jakarta during the chaotic last days before the fall of Sukarno. The great relief expressed not in words but by the body language of the foreign correspondent, played by Mel Gibson, as his plane took off from Jakarta was what I experienced as my train crossed the causeway to Singapore.


            In our hotel that night was the first time that I felt we were on holidays. It was as if a tight corset had been ripped off my chest. I felt expansive! We swam in the pool and had dinner at the hotel. The western menu looked familiar. Had we been there only a few weeks earlier we would have left the restaurant as the food was too expensive and foreign! I was surprised that I settled in the old familiar groove so fast and so smooth.


            The next day we flew out from Paya Lebar Airport. We were seated on the port side of the China Airlines 747 jet. As it lumbered up into the blue heaven, I could see JB and the causeway below, and beyond, GHJB. My mind wandered. It was 9AM, they must be in the midst of their rounds. I imagined the clinical discussions.


            Soon JB receded out of my window view. Ahead was the deep blue South China Sea lapping on the eastern shores of Malaysia. I could identify Desaru, and then Mersing. What a view from 20,000 feet. The plane was still ascending. Soon, the white sandy east coast of Malaysia disappeared from our view. We had left Malaysia.


            The reassuring steady humming of the dangling jet engines on the wings was the only intrusion to that expansive world of the open sky and blue sea below. As for my own little world, I had just finished one phase or chapter and now embarking on the next. There would be more twists and turns as well as ups and downs. That’s the nature of life. As such it would be too soon if not presumptuous to draw any conclusions.


            This much was certain. During the past decade and a half since I finished high school and left for Canada to enter college and med school, and then my private practice, was a time of great change, for me as well as my native land. I was a young cub that had been taken out of his pack to be raised by another, and then suddenly returned. I was expecting to lead my old pack only to find out that it now had its own alpha tigers who were not in the least interested to share the space with an intruder. While I was not rejected, I was not welcomed with much enthusiasm either. Things looked just familiar enough to deceive me when in fact they were no longer the same. We, my pack and me, both had changed, but in opposite directions. Better to part ways now while I still harbored fond memories. As for the future, who knows. Our paths may yet cross again. If and when that were to happen, it would be facilitated if I were not to harbor any negative emotions. With that peaceful reassuring thought, I drifted off to sleep.


Sunday, August 09, 2020

Excerpt #74: A Final Cruel Tease

 Excerpt # 74:  A Final Cruel Tease

M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)



            Karen, who had been preparing breakfast, heard the gist of my phone conversation with Tan Sri Hashim Aman, at least from my half of it. She asked who the caller was, and I replied that he was head of the University of Malaya.


            “Let me guess! He offered you the job?” she teased.


            “I wished!” I replied.


            Karen already knew that from hearing snippets of my side of the conversation. Our airline tickets notwithstanding, she was still disappointed that I did not get my dream job but at the same time was greatly relieved that our plans were not derailed at the last minute.


            A few days later I had another trunk call. The caller introduced himself as Datuk Seri Doctor Syed Mahmud, Vice-Chairman of the University Council. He did not miss any title he had to his name. He said he was with Tan Sri Hashim Aman at the interview meeting that I had missed. He reiterated what Hashim had indicated to me, their willingness to set a new date for my interview. I again rehashed what I had told Hashim Aman, but Dr. Syed Mahmud was not persuaded. Instead, he tried to lay an emotional guilt-trip on me.


            “It behooved those of us who have been privileged to get a superior education to give back,” he pontificated.


            I knew of this doctor. He and his physician-wife lived in a house next to my empty lot in PJ where I had planned to build my dream home. We would have been neighbors! He was in private practice and had varied business interests, including a private hospital.


            I had heard that spiel of his in its infinite variations many times before and was ready for it. When I was in Canada, some of my fellow Malaysians castigated me for staying behind after I graduated. I should return to serve my country at the earliest opportunity and not think of my personal ambitions. Malaysia was in desperate need of general doctors, not specialists. Even the Malaysian Ambassador to Canada who was visiting our campus at the time echoed the same theme. My rebuttal was simple and direct:  Surely as a doctor I knew best the medical needs of Malaysia better than them, being that they were not even doctors. That shut them up.


            I let this Datuk Seri Dr. Syed Mahmud have his smooth stroll down this familiar path. When he finished lecturing me I responded, “I agree with what you one hundred percent!”


            “Good!” he replied, savoring his easy victory over a meek prey.


            I then suggested that both he and I should join the university; I, the Department of Surgery, and he to start a Department of Family Medicine. A burgeoning new field, I assured him, with all major universities in Canada having one. Together we could transform the medical school.


            He demurred. I knew I had him snared. He had too many lucrative private businesses to give up for a mere academic job. As he was struggling to find some ready excuses, I went for the jugular. Surely, I suggested to him, that he had by now made his fortune and could live on his investments alone. He would not be dependent on his meagre academic salary, unlike me with a young family and just starting out.


            He stuttered and began enumerating his many reasons of why he could not do that, and of the difficulty disentangling from his many businesses. I cut him off. If he were to quit his many businesses to join the university, then I would return my airline tickets and join him. Like Hashim Aman earlier, he too was surprised that I had already bought my airline tickets.


            On that less-than-cordial note we ended our conversation; he more eager than me to do so.


            Hashim Aman and Syed Mahmud typified Malay leaders at all levels and across the spectrum, then and now. They excel in exhorting others to make sacrifices but spare themselves that chore. Prime Minister Najib Razak never tired of urging Malaysians to be frugal, yet he traveled around the world in luxurious private jets, as did his wife, all on taxpayers’ expense of course. The weddings of their sons and daughters rivaled that of princes and princesses. The hypocrisy is obvious to all but them.


            Years later after my sister Hamidah had built her house on my old PJ lot, she asked me many times when I visited her to meet her neighbor Dr. Syed Mahmud, but I always managed to find a ready excuse until one day. He was a having a Hari Raya “Open House,” and I ran out of excuses. I finally told my sister about my phone conversation with him years earlier.


            That last cruel tease from the university disposed of, we were set to leave.


As an epilogue, a few months after we had settled in Canada, a friend who was associated with the University of Malaya wrote us about the university wanting to get a hold of me. Should she give them our address in Canada? I replied, why not.


            A few weeks later I received a big fat envelope from the University of Malaya. In it was an offer for an Associate Professorship of Surgery, together with open-ended airline tickets from Edmonton to Kuala Lumpur for me and my family, as well as a voucher for a container for our household goods, both issued by a Malay-sounding travel agency. I threw it out just as I did with the interview letter months earlier while we were in JB. Karen retrieved the tickets. She noted that while they were all one-way just like our earlier tickets from Singapore to Edmonton, the price was nearly doubled of what we had paid. Both were for economy class. Perhaps the open-endedness of the tickets was the reason for the huge price differential. Or maybe not. That could have been an early ugly manifestation of UMNO’s (as exemplified by Mahathir and later Najib) Malaysia Inc. business transaction model.


            I tried to maintain my routine on that last day of work and said my goodbyes as if I was going away for a brief vacation. Meaning, minimal fuss. I wanted no ripples. The last person I bid farewell to was my colleague, Mr. Bhattal. I met him in his private office and he gave me a warm hug. He confessed that he knew that I would not last long but wished I could have stayed just a wee bit longer. Then he slumped on his chair, staring at the ceiling, deep in thought. It would be impolite of me to take leave at that moment.


            “I was thinking of my daughter,” he finally blurted, as he came out of his revelry. He and his wife were contemplating sending her abroad for further studies. He wondered what adjustment problems she would have on returning. Then realizing my presence, he apologized and wished me luck.


            I arrived home to find it empty of our possessions, with Karen and the kids throwing balloons in our now spacious living room. I was surprised to see our maid still there. She would usually leave after cooking us lunch, but on that last day she had no lunch to cook as we were all packed up. As we were leaving, I handed her an envelope with some cash in it. She knew what was inside and refused my gift, despite my repeated offering it to her. In the end I just left it at the gate; she would have to take it then. As I was about to step into the car she asked me to tell Karen to remember to recite often the prayers she had taught her. I was touched by her gesture! So I did, and Karen came out of the car to hug her. There were tears flowing freely on both faces.


            We left our Jalan Baiduri duplex, our home for the past twelve months, for Seremban. We had said our goodbyes to our neighbors the day before and had shared with them the last harvest from our property, the bananas I had planted at the back of the house.


            As we drove off we looked back; we could hardly see our house. The trees we had planted had now reached the roof level. What a contrast in color and scenery, the cool sight of those trees and its white-purplish flowers in full bloom instead of the monotonous creamy color of the bare walls of the house.


Excerpted from the author’s memoir, The Son Has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia (2018).


Next:  Excerpt #   75:  Leaving Malaysia