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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, May 22, 2017

The Malay Dilemma Revisited. Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia. Updated Edition 2017

The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics In Modern Malaysia - Updated Edition
List Price: $19.90  (April 2017)
6" x 9" (15.24 x 22.86 cm) 
Black & White on Cream paper
408 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1543242423 (CreateSpace-Assigned) 
ISBN-10: 1543242421 
LCCN: 2017903018 
BISAC: Political Science / Public Affairs & Administration
Few countries today have culturally or ethnically homogenous populations, the consequence of colonization, globalization, and mass migrations. Thus, the Malaysian dilemma of socioeconomic and other inequities paralleling racial and cultural divisions has global relevance as it also burdens many nations.  
Malaysia’s basic instrument in ameliorating these horizontal (between groups) inequities has been its New Economic Policy (NEP). Its core mechanism being preferential socio-economic and other initiatives favoring indigenous Malays and other non-immigrant minorities, as well as massive state interventions in the marketplace. In place since 1970 in the aftermath of the deadly 1969 race riots, NEP has been continuously “strengthened,” meaning, ever increasing resources expended and preferences being imposed with greater assertiveness. 
Malaysia succeeded to some degree in reducing her earlier inequities and in the process created a sizeable Malay middle class. There was however, a steep price. Apart from the marketplace distortions and consequent drag on the economy, those earlier horizontal inequities are now replaced by the more destabilizing vertical variety. NEP also bred a rentier- economy mindset among Malays and other recipient communities. Those preferences now impair rather than enhance the recipents' (in particular Malay) competitiveness, the universal law of unintended consequences being operative. 
Initiated by Prime Minister Razak in 1970, his successor, Mahathir, raised NEP to a much more aggressive level, only to have that initiative today corrupted and degraded by, ironically, Tun Razak’s son, current Prime Minister Najib. By July 2016, the US Department of Justice alleges that “Malaysian Official 1” (aka Najib) illicitly siphoned over US$3.5 Billion from a government-linked corporation, 1MDB. Corruption on such a gargantuan scale was the predictable and inevitable consequence of Malaysia’s New Economic Policy and state interventions in the marketplace.  
Ths book chronicles Mahathir’s and Najib’s perversion of a once noble endeavor. Najib now adds another volatile mix. Desperate to hang on to power, he adds religious fanaticism to his already corrosive corruption and destructive incomptence. He now cavorts with extremist Islamists, threatening and undermining the nation’s still fragile race dynamics. Malaysia is today still burdened and blighted by Najib’s inept, corrupt, and chauvinistic leadership, with no end in sight. This would inevitably undermone the current fragile but still peaceful racial equilibrium in the country. 
Instead of arbitrarily-picked numbers and targets, Malaysia should focus on strengthening Malay competitiveness through enhancing our human and social capitals. Modernizing the education system to emphasize the sciences, mathematics, English fluency, and technical training would address the first. Curtailing royal institutions and other vestiges of feudalism, as well as the regressive form of religion as propagated by the state, would develop the second. It is difficult to wean Malays off the special privilege narcotic when the sultans are frolicking at the top of the heap. 
Beyond chronicling the failures of both the Najib and Mahathir Administrations, the author offers these alternative strategies for enhancing Malay competitiveness. Apart from improving the quality of our human and social capital through modern education and responsive institutions, the author advocates removing or at least toning down the stifling influence of official religion.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Sorry Shape of the Malaysian Ship of State

The Sorry Shape of the Malaysian Ship of State
M. Bakri Musa

A nation is like a boat on a river. Face the craft in the wrong direction and it would end up downstream in the marshy delta in short order, with minimal or no effort. It would languish there in the mud, at the mercy of the tides and floods. Face your boat sideways to head for the comfort of the nearby shore and you risk being broadsided by the current. Even if your boat were to face upstream, you could still end up downstream, albeit more slowly, for lack of paddling.

By facing our boat upstream and paddling hard, Malaysians have achieved much and traversed many superior fishing grounds as well as enjoyed numerous beautiful sights. Malaysians have also met and mingled with many upstream people, folks used to and comfortable in waters that are fresh, cool, and clean. Now we too aspire for that; we too want the waters around us to be free of the jetsam and flotsam. However, we can only get that by going upstream.

In the past with our preoccupation with moving our craft upstream we have forgotten the elementary caution of keeping it steady. The faster we paddle, the more we need to do so lest we risk capsizing our craft. Further, the steadier and more streamlined our craft is, the faster we would progress. If we rock our boat we have to expend the extra effort to maintain its stability and speed. Eddies and other turbulences impede the flow as well as jeopardize our craft’s stability; likewise, if our hull were encrusted with barnacles.

Malaysia was rudely reminded of this grim reality back in 1969. Then the ship of state was moving forward quite steadily, but not fast enough to the satisfaction of some. Those dissatisfied began rocking the craft instead of helping paddle it forward faster. The consequence was disastrous; the nation was torn asunder by a vicious race riot. No sane Malaysian would want to repeat that experience.

Today the ship of state that is Malaysia is not moving upstream as fast as we were used to or are potentially capable of. Malaysians are rightly dissatisfied. This frustration is made more acute when we see neighboring ships that were once by our side or way in our rear now fast overtaking us.

Our collective response thus far to this unhappy turn of events is anything but inspiring. It is downright frightening, echoing with frightening eeriness what we did during that dark period leading to 1969. Now, as then, we are preoccupied with who gets to steer, be on the top deck, and to sit at the captain’s table. We are busy rearranging the deck chairs and not paying attention to where we are headed. The lookout person has abandoned his post and is busy lobbying for the best spot on deck. Little did he realize that when the ship is broadsided by a rogue wave, even the best spot would be swamped.

All on board are busy looking inwards, not to study and solve the problem but to blame each other, that is, when they are not busy elbowing each other to get the choicest spot. I wonder when the Titanic was listing dangerously whether those pampered guests in the upper deck were still frenetically trying to secure dinner invitations from their captain.

In a boat you are either help, or by default, load; there is no in-between. Likewise in society; you are either an asset or liability, part of the solution or part of the problem, contributor to or dependent on the state. Ballast is necessary for stability even though it slows down the craft. One could argue that the sultans are a heavy unnecessary load (financially and in many other ways) thus slowing our nation-boat, they serve as a necessary ballast to keep the ship of state stable. However, it is worth reminding that ballast in a ship is put at its lowest point to effect maximal stability. If you put the ballast on deck or way high up, you invite instability.

In a democratic ship of state, all on board have a say on who gets to be skipper, be in the upper deck, or even be on board. To the extent that the Malaysian ship of state is now facing the wrong direction, being skippered by a less-than-competent captain, heavily weighed down by freeloaders, and slowed down by encrusting barnacles, citizens have only themselves to blame.

There are only two options for Malaysians. One is to jump ship. That option is available to only a select few, those fortunate to have the skills needed by the other faster and more gleaming ships. For the rest, jumping from one slow, leaky, and rat-infested craft to another is no progress, quite apart from the risks involved. Even those fortunate enough to land on a sleeker ship, there is no guarantee that they would be on the same deck level; far too often they would be consigned below deck. Only the lucky few would have upgraded cabins in their new ship. Even for those fortunate few, the thoughts and memories of those they leave behind cannot help but diminish the pleasure of their upgraded status.

For the vast majority, the more sensible solution would be to work at getting their ship in Bristol condition, facing the right direction, and being skippered by a competent captain. We cannot achieve those goals if we remain insular or eye each other with suspicion. Collectively we have to scan the wide horizon, study the other ships, and read the waves below. We have to discern the clouds as well as feel the wind, its force and direction. Most importantly, we have to exercise our best judgment in picking our captain and insist that he picks a competent crew.

Then after having done our due diligence, even if we do not agree on the final destination chosen by our skipper, at least we could enjoy the sail. At the very least our journey would be safer; we would not likely be stranded on a dangerous reef or be swamped by a rogue wave. Who knows, while we may not share the same final port of call, there may be many along the way that we would like to visit together.

That is what an unshackled mind could do for us. A free mind would give us the serenity to accept things that we cannot change, the courage to change things that we can, and the wisdom to know the difference, to quote Neibuhr’s serenity prayer.

Malaysia achieved political independence more than half a century ago, but mentally Malaysians are still very much entrapped. The battle cry for this new century should be, “Merdeka Minda Melayu!” (Liberate the Malay Mind!), and we should pursue this noble goal with the same vigor, passion, and determination as our forefathers did with Merdeka Tanah Melayu.

Today Malaysia is in disarray; its skipper corrupt, incompetent, and far from being diligent; his crew tired, distracted and indifferent. The ship of state is headed in the wrong direction, and there are many shoals and reefs ahead. The wind is building up and the water increasingly choppy. The wakes of overtaking ships are battering us. Worse, those ships were once way behind us. We are being shackled by needlessly intrusive and abusive rules that were meant for a different era when the ship was skippered by other than our own people. Now our own leaders are exploiting those rules to further their own nefarious needs. On deck, the ballast is rising to the top, threatening our stability.

We fail to appreciate these cruel realities because our minds are trapped into thinking otherwise; hence my call for Merdeka Minda Melayu. We have to have a free mind to appreciate the stark realities we are under and not let our leaders delude us into thinking otherwise. We need a free mind to work ourselves out from under these myriad burdens lest we condemn ourselves and future generations along the same perilous course that has led us to where we are today.

A free mind cannot be willed upon; there is no magic wand out there. We have to strive hard – very hard – at liberating our minds, just as hard, if not more so, as we did in liberating our native land. It is a worthy and noble pursuit; a closed mind is the worst prison.

We should disabuse ourselves of the false comfort of life underneath the coconut shell. That world with its coziness, familiarity and predictability is no heaven; it is in fact a prison, and a very cruel one at that. That shell is no protector, it is an oppressor. It prevents us, as Allah’s vice-regents in this temporal world, from enjoying His Many Blessings that is this vast universe with all its beauty, bounty and diversity. Remaining underneath the coconut shell means we are not appreciative of Allah’s gift. And that would the greatest show of disrespect.

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, May 14, 2017

Merdeka Minda Melayu!

Merdeka Minda Melayu!
(Liberate The Malay Mind!)
M. Bakri Musa

Merdeka Tanah Melayu! “Freedom for the Malay Land!”

            That was our rallying cry in the first half of the last century. That culminated in our nation’s independence from British colonial rule in 1957. With independence came the freedom to chart our own course. Through that precious gift, we achieved much. We can be proud of having crossed numerous milestones and accomplished many goals, some of which we would not have even dared aspire to had we remained under colonial rule. Such are the promises and rewards of freedom.

            By no means were those goals and rewards assured. Today, many in Asia and Africa yearn for what they consider (and with valid reasons) to be their good old days under colonialism. To them, independence became (and continues to mean) not freedom to pursue their dreams but brutal lawlessness and endless nightmares. To them, merdeka is overrated.

            Malaysians need to be reminded of this harsh reality every so often, not to gloat but as a warning that things could easily have gone the other way for the nation. Malaysia could have been another Rwanda or Sri Lanka, wrecked with deadly sectarian strife. Those countries have been independent too, some for longer periods than Malaysia, and each fearlessly proud of their freedom. Increasingly however, their pride is becoming hollow.

            The colonials oppressed us socially, culturally and for more than a few, also physically and mentally. Our culture was denigrated and our faith pushed aside. Our language was belittled if not ignored while our brave leaders who dared speak out were imprisoned or banished. The colonialists were interested only in exploiting our land, while our ways and society fascinated only their linguists and anthropologists, quite apart from their eccentrics with their voyeuristic curiosity for things exotic. Despite all that we survived. Indeed, we went beyond; we ultimately prevailed and became independent.

            Today we may be free from colonial rule but we have willingly let ourselves be entrapped mentally, this time by forces of our own making. We have let our culture be our oppressor, and we are imprisoned by our religion. Our chauvinistic pride in our language traps us from learning new ones, thus handicapping us in this global age. Worse, by willfully wrapping ourselves in our national language we have also consciously imprisoned our minds.

            The banality of our leaders’ corruption is now beyond our rage. When they are not engrossed in enriching themselves at our expense, they are busy degrading us. They belittle us at every opportunity for not measuring up to the standards they have set for us. They however, conveniently disregard or are otherwise contemptuous of those standards and values. Conditioned by the dictates of our culture, we remain loyal to them.

            If those irritants are not enough, we are also being strangled by the rigidity, crudity and intrusiveness of our laws; laws that are of our own making, or more correctly that which our leaders have created and imposed upon us. As for our current system of educating our young, far from liberating those precious young minds, our schools and universities actively entrap them.

            Then there is the economy. Malaysia is rich with abundant natural resources and spared nature’s many calamities. Yet Malays are increasingly marginalized. All the socio-economic indices are not in our favor; worse, they are deteriorating with alarming rapidity.

            There was a time when we were active in trade and commerce. That was how Islam came to us. Malacca, then the center of our civilization, was a blossoming entrepôt port, located in the protected waters in the path of the prevailing trade winds. Today, rent-seekers, pseudo-entrepreneurs, and the various government-linked companies (GLCs) define our “engagement” in commerce. Our capitalists are not the genuine variety, rather what Yoshihara Kunio termed as “ersatz capitalists.” We have our own term, Ali Baba “businessmen.” The quotation marks are unnecessary as that expression is now a permanent part of our lexicon.

            We are hooked on special privileges like drug addicts their illicit fixes; we have been indoctrinated to believe that our very survival depends on them. We fail to sense that these privileges are but burdens impeding our very progress and dragging us down. Instead we have been programmed to view them as floaters without which we would have long ago been underwater. Our leaders have convinced us, and in turn themselves of this myth; hence we clamor for more privileges and ever-increasing “special rights!” Our struggle then focuses solely on that:  achieving more and ever generous privileges, subsidies and bailouts.

            Those are the perceptions we have of the world and of ourselves. We plan our actions and react to unfolding events based on those views. That is the self-narrative we have crafted. We imagine our future based on that, and we do not like that future at all. Our fear of it makes us hold on even more tightly to what we have today, and then in a mistaken belief that our very survival depends on those privileges, we demand even more. And the destructive downward spiral accelerates until we are thrown into an uncontrollable vortex.

            Things need not have to be that way. We cannot change the current reality; those barnacles on our society’s hull are as obvious to us as to others. We can however, change our perception. Once we have done that, we will begin to see the world as others do. We can then appreciate what had been obvious to others all along, that is, those barnacles on our vessels are not keeping us afloat. Far from that; they effect a heavy drag. Once we realize that we can then begin to aggressively get rid of them as they have now become tightly encrusted upon and fast making themselves a part of us.

            We have to remove our blinders so we can view reality under varying shades and angles of light. Only then could we see the big elephant in the room in its entirety, and not be trapped by the individual assessments of blind leaders groping its various parts. Then we could appreciate and understand the beast in all its beauty, totality, and yes, complexity. There will be disquieting disequilibrium initially as old certitudes get mercilessly demolished. That could be humiliating, and humility is a very good place to start the learning process. Who knows, with greater understanding we might even be able to tame the elephant and make it work for us by using its might to do the heavy lifting.

            A free mind is a prerequisite for us to see the world as it is and not as what we may imagine it to be or what others tell us it is. Staying the course would condemn us and future generations to the roles others have assigned for us, and we would be perpetually at their mercy. Such a destiny and fate should haunt us; hence the need to be obsessed with liberating our minds. Sans a free mind, we condemn ourselves and future generations to be Pramoedya’s Sabu and Ina.

Adapted from the Aauhtor's book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications, PJ 2013 

Make Malay College Exclusively IB

Make Malay College Exclusively International Baccalaureate
  1. Bakri Musa
Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) is being yanked left and right as well as up and down by the Ministry of Education (MOE) and other agencies. Among others, the college is being directed to be Sekolah Kluster Kecemerlangan (Cluster of Excellence School), Sekolah Berprestasi Tinggi (High Prestige School), and School of Global Excellence. Even the government-linked conglomerate Khazanah is in the act, the college being its “Trust School,” whatever that means.
            Neither excellence nor anything of great value comes from those being told what to do. The college should chart its own course and then convince those in authority the merits of its ideas, not the other way around.
            MCKK’s governing board glitters with luminaries. Its chairman, the Sultan of Perak, is an Oxford graduate and a Harvard PhD. However, unless the board can demonstrate leadership with great ideas and their effective execution, then it is nothing more than a distracting window dressing.
            I suggest two possible futures for MCKK. One, become an exclusive International Baccalaureate (IB) school; two, collaborate with a degree-granting institution for an accelerated program where its students would complete their high school simultaneously with the first two years of university, and earn an Associate Degree.
            Since I left in 1962 as a Sixth Former, Malay College has been through only three major academic changes. One was its initiation of a science stream while I was there; two, elimination of Sixth Form together with switching into Malay in the late 1970s; and three, introducing IB’s Diploma Program (DP) in 2011, after over a decade in planning.
            The introduction of the pure science stream was the only unqualified success. That initiative also brought the Sixth Form science block. The consequences of that move are the many current and past STEM professors at local universities, as well as many of our leading scientists and specialists.
            That move grabbed the national headlines then, and rightly so. However, not to gloat but to put things in perspective, my Tuanku Muhammad School in Kuala Pilah started its pure science stream years earlier, sans any fanfare.
            That one positive change was soon undone with the switch in the language of instruction to Malay and the discontinuation of Sixth Form. Without Sixth Form, proud MCKK was emasculated to a glorified, expensive middle school. Concomitant with that was the de-emphasis on science. Today MCKK could not even meet the ministry’s minimal 60:40 goal of science to non-science students.
            As for the college’s IB, it is too soon to tell. This much we do know. It has to advertise to attract applicants, and the results of the first few years lag behind the region’s average. More telling, the program is not the first choice among the college’s own students. Very unusual! Nonetheless, last year the college expanded the IB to the Middle School Years (MSY).
            Time to reassess the college. That should begin with considering who its peers are or should be. They should not be the other local residential schools or the likes of SMK Ulu Kelantan, rather Singapore’s Raffles Institution, Britain’s Eton, America’s Groton, and South Korea’s Daewon. Daewon is a recent institution but already has a reputation as the leading feeder school for elite universities. As for local peers, I suggest KL’s International School and Penang’s Chung Ling.
            Making the college all IB should be next. Then its students would not have to sit for local examinations. That would be liberating, for them and their teachers. IB would become the college’s crown jewel academic offering, and not as at present, only an expensive ornamental add-on. Were MCKK to do that, it would become the biggest of such schools in the world. MCKK could start a trend in being truthful in posting IB results. Currently many schools with hybrid IB have artificially excellent results because they screened their students, allowing only their very best to sit for the test.
            IB’s DP is two years; the full MSY, five. You do not have to subscribe to the full MSY. I suggest only the last two. Students would enter a preliminary “prep” year of full English immersion, reminiscent of the old Special Malay and Remove Classes. They would then continue with years 4 and 5 of MSY before proceeding to DP, making their stay at Kuala Kangsar a total of five years, just as at present. The only difference is that these students would enter in midyear of their local Form II instead of at the beginning of Form I.
            That prep year is critical; IB is English-medium and emphasizes critical thinking, the polar opposite of our national curriculum which is in Malay and heavy on rote learning. Making MCKK exclusively IB would also eliminate the students’ current wasteful half-a-year hiatus following their SPM examination. Much attrition in learning and good study habits occurs during that long break.
            Changing the school year from January to July could pose problems with regards to inter-school sports and other competitions, as well as with families coping with different school holidays. However, with more schools now offering IB, they could form their own leagues. The second problem would entail major adjustments for families.
            The major cost for residential schools is for food and lodging. MCKK could double or even triple its current output without much additional costs by becoming exclusively IB. The small incremental increase in costs for the academic program could be more than recouped by charging fees on a sliding scale based on parental income.
            With the increasing popularity of IB, and with Western universities becoming exorbitant, I envisage a need soon for a local university to cater for these graduates. It would be great if MCKK were to be instrumental in initiating a new trend in tertiary education in the country and region.
            As for the second option of an accelerated high school-college program, Bard College has a very successful one with New York City’s schools. A high school in my area has one with a nearby college, focusing on STEM subjects and underrepresented minority students.
            It would be difficult for Malay College to start a comparable program in Kuala Kangsar seeing that there are no degree-granting institutions nearby. The plan would be feasible for residential schools in Klang Valley because of the numerous universities in the area. Penang’s Tri-Chung Ling High Schools leaders once contemplated having their own tertiary institution integrated with their school system based on similar rationale.
            MCKK started as a colonial institution to train children of the feudal elite for junior administrative positions. Only later did it become a school, and its admissions liberalized. It is time for another transformation.
            I look forward to reading headlines of the school’s Speech Day not on the many royal guests in attendance rather the headmaster announcing with unconcealed pride the list of elite universities his graduating students would be attending. That would mean more to and reflect better the college’s students, teachers, parents, and leaders than any award the sultan or ministry could bestow.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Toppling The Malay Coconut Shell

Toppling The Malay Coconut Shell
M. Bakri Musa

The Malay coconut shell had been toppled many times in our history, and not necessarily through our own efforts, as when those early Muslim traders entered our world. They came to trade but through their exemplary day-to-day activities and conduct, they upended our core belief system. Those Muslim traders transformed Malays from believing in multiple deities to a one All-Powerful and All-Encompassing God. That did not change our physical world but it was momentous nonetheless precisely because of that. We adapted to that new world in a smooth and seamless transition. We became better for it.

The colonials too flipped over our shell. Unlike those Muslims traders, the changes the colonials brought about were physical and demographic, as when they flooded the country with immigrants to work the tin mines and rubber estates. Those colonialists also made their presence known in no uncertain terms, to the natives as well as immigrants, who was in charge.

We cursed the colonials for upending our familiar comfortable world. Nonetheless their flipping over our coconut shell exposed us to a new and much wider world. At the micro or personal level, if not for the colonials I would still today be an orang hamba (slave) at the istana (palace), just like my ancestors. There are others who argue that the colonialism itself was a form of slavery. That may well be so.

At the macro or societal level, the British colonials (though not the earlier Dutch or Portuguese) introduced modern education. Thousands benefited from that. To be sure, those colonials did not do that with much enthusiasm nor funded it with bountiful generosity. They did it in portions just enough to satisfy their collective conscience and to meet their pragmatic need for locally qualified people to help them rule us more effectively and, not to be discounted, cheaply.

There were other less appreciated but nonetheless significant and enduring benefits of colonial rule. That may not be a politically correct assertion to make, nonetheless the British gave us Munshi Abdullah. If not for them, he too would be another indentured laborer at the istana, and Malay literature would remain nothing more than the chronicles of khayalan (fantasies).

Another global cataclysm that toppled the metaphorical coconut shell of our Malay world was World War II. While the colonialists’ entry forced a sea change in our Malay way of life and matters physical, the Japanese invasion triggered even more. They not only changed the country physically, and it was a very terrible change, but also and of much greater significance and permanence, triggered a momentous change in the Malay psyche.

The sight of those hitherto invincible white Tuans and their Mems scurrying in their Austins and Morris Minors chased by the short, yellow Japanese on their sardine can-made bicycles made quite an impact on the collective natives’ psyche:  The myth of white supremacy forever shattered! It was this that emboldened Malays to pursue with even greater vigor our independence.

While external upheavals can topple our coconut shell, we cannot always count on them or predict the outcome to be in our favor. Nor could we anticipate the costs we would have to bear, which was considerable as we saw with colonialism and the Japanese Occupation. That is a crucial caveat. It would be much more preferable for us to make our own effort at toppling our shell. Then we could control its timing and thus minimize the collateral damage. We would also be more likely to get the changes we desired.

Toppling our coconut shell begins with our freeing ourselves mentally to imagine the world beyond the present. That is the crucial first step. Once we can imagine, then we can fly, or in the words of the great Muhammad Ali, “A man who has no imagination has no wings.”

Imagination rules the world, Napoleon once said. Once one’s imagination is ignited, there is no going back; our shell will be toppled. The question then will be whether it is done with great care so as not to incur collateral damages, or recklessly as in the rampage of a revolution. The former is preferable. However, as the promises of flipping our shell are so great, the fear of the latter should not deter us.

A sure way of igniting our imagination is to be dissatisfied with our present condition. Change, and thus progress, depends on us not being satisfied with the status quo. Once we have this sense of dissatisfaction or even better, anger, that would motivate us to topple over and get out from underneath our shell. Immigrants are successful in their adopted land because they are driven by dissatisfaction with their native land.

A major obstacle for Malays specifically and Muslims generally is our ingrained but misguided notion of satisfaction with the status quo, al qadar – our fate is written in the book – the passive acceptance that there is not much that we can do to alter our destiny. This destructive religious determinism is just as crippling as the pseudo modern biological one – our fate lies with our genes. The latter is from our misunderstanding of science; the former, the misreading of our faith.

There is much that we can do at the individual level to fire up our imagination. Merely looking at and being curious of the wonderful world around and within us would open up our minds. Observing the stars above had triggered many an imagination. With it, Copernicus transformed our view of the universe from a geocentric one that we inherited from the Greeks to a heliocentric one. Many a theological and other shells were shattered by that singular observation.

Exposing ourselves to the imagination of others is another, as with the old storytelling. Today it would be reading. Pictures and videos both expand and restrict that reach. It expands because of the richness of the images; restricts because the photographer or videographer imposes her imagination upon her viewers! Travel and experiencing other cultures too stretch our imagination. Mystics go into seclusion for extended periods to force a change in the normal rhythm of their lives to effect similar ends.

At the societal level, the proven pathways towards igniting our imagination and thus liberating our minds include information, education, and our involvement in trade and commerce.

Once we are aware through education, information and our travels or trading activities that there is a much wider world out there, then we are not likely to be satisfied with our own confined dark space no matter how comfortable it may seem to us at the time or what a paradise it is as per the repeated assurances of our leaders.

All three – information, education, and commerce – apart from opening up our minds and facilitating the toppling of our shell, are also the best ways to prepare us for the new open world. The following chapters will deal with each of these elements. Before proceeding, I pause and reassess where we are, the direction we are headed, and the destination we aspire to reach.

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.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The False Comfort and Security Underneath the Coconut Shell

The False Comfort and Security Underneath the Coconut Shell

The North Koreans are convinced that they live in Paradise because their “Beloved Leader” tells them so. Never mind that they wake up every morning with nothing to look forward to, and go to sleep at night on an empty stomach. Likewise, Malaysian leaders never tire of telling us that they are competent and honest despite the mess the country is in, while they luxuriate in palatial mansions and citizens struggle to eke out a living. Those leaders could not possibly afford such obscene opulence just on their government wages. However, express your doubts and you stand accused of being blasphemous, disloyal, or even traitorous.

            Returning to the coconut shell metaphor, that little (or even big) frog can be smug about his world and claim to comprehend and be in full command of it. After all what is there to understand or command? His world is dark and small. He is the only one to obey his orders!

            What that proverbial Señor Froggie does not appreciate is that his universe, huge as it may seem to him, is nothing but a speck.

            Those on the outside may be tempted to lord it over the unfortunate entrapped frog. We may even pity it. However, as Pramoedya noted in his Child of All Nations, “Pity is the feeling of well-intentioned people who are unable to act.” Impotent, we assuage what little guilt we may harbor by rationalizing that the poor soul is probably quite happy with his lot. That may well be; after all you do not miss what you do not know or have.

            Malays face many forces, subtle as well as brute, that keep us cooped under our coconut shell. The subtle ones include the feudal elements of our culture, as with our ready acceptance of our fate (takdir) and our meek acceptance of and deference to authority figures. Then there are our schools and universities; they indoctrinate our young instead of teaching them to think critically. We are also easily taken in with labels; call something “Islamic” and we fall for it right away, suspending our critical judgment. I understand that they are working on an “Islamic” beer! Our leaders exploit this by labeling those they disagree with as anti-Islam, “anti-nationals,” or “unpatriotic.” We in turn are only too ready to believe those labels. The current puerile debate over halal and haram is a manifestation of this meaningless obsession.

            As for the brute forces, there are the intrusive and repressive laws like the dreadful Internal Security Act where a minister has absolute power to incarcerate citizens without trial. Now Malaysia has the National Security Act of 2016 with even more unchecked powers given to the authorities. Again, note those labels; those laws are not for our “security” but to keep us subservient.

            No mortal should ever have unchecked and absolute power. As the Sudanese reformer Mahmoud Mohamad Taha observed, “No person is perfect enough to be entrusted with the liberty and dignity of others.” We need effective checks and balances, and respect for due process. Those are not niceties but necessities. Do not let any mullah, regardless how impressive his title or big his turban is, tell you otherwise. You would be a donkey to believe him.

            Three daunting obstacles face our entrapped citizen frog in escaping from underneath his coconut shell. The first and greatest is to instill in him the realization that he is indeed trapped, and then to ignite in him the desire to escape; second, help him escape or topple that shell; and third, assist him to adjust to his new open world.

            The first obstacle is the toughest. Far too often we lack even the awareness of being trapped. We remain blissfully ignorant. This awareness is crucial but by itself is not enough; we must also then have the desire to escape. For that to happen, we must first be dissatisfied with our current state.

            It may seem perverse but there are those who are content to remain underneath their shell, readily accepting their fate as Allah’s will–al qadar (divinely destined). Who are we to challenge His design?

            Then there is the universal power of inertia; we are comfortable with the status quo. Besides, it has served our parents, and their parents and even grandparents well. Again, who are we to alter tradition?
       As for ambition, that would only upset mankind, as Pramoedya noted in his short story, Djongos dan Babu (Houseboy and Maid). That family destined themselves to be slaves forever. If God were to pity them, their thirtieth generation would have descended so low as to be no longer humans but worms crawling inside the earth, wrote Pramoedya.

            The coconut shell world of Sabu and Ina (the sibling characters in that story) was tossed over many times, yet they still sought to be underneath one. The Dutch enslaved them, but when the colonial world collapsed, instead of liberating themselves they chose to be enslaved under the Japanese. When the Japanese were defeated, the pair again chose to be enslaved, this time by the returning Dutch. Happy to be perpetual slaves they refused to be free with their fellow Indonesians, deeming themselves “too good” to be with their fellow dirty, brown natives.

            History is replete with examples of external upheavals resulting in the inadvertent toppling of shells. Trapped underneath we are not even aware up until then of the external cataclysms. Only when all of a sudden, we find ourselves in a new, open and much bigger world do we realized that we had been cooped up all along.

            Those who destined themselves to be eternal slaves (or accept their fate) like Pramoedya’s Sabu and Ina would find this new world far from welcoming; in fact, it would be downright frightening. They would then scramble to find new shells to hide under, like hermit crabs exposed after the onslaught of a tidal wave. For others, the external upheaval that toppled their shell would be a welcomed transforming event.

Next:  Paths Toward Toppling Our Coconut Shell

Excerpted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications.