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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, August 23, 2015

Lessons From Our Encounter With Islam

The Lessons From Our Encounter With Islam
M. Bakri Musa
The smooth assimilation of Malays into Islam was the result of both “down-up” and “up-down” dynamics. The average Malay peasant in his or her interactions with the ancient Muslim traders saw the value of this new faith. This message then spread laterally among the other villagers and later upwards to the nobility and ultimately the sultans. They too saw the merit of this new religion and that acceptance trickled down to the masses. The result was the quick transformation of Malay society.

     Today in the retelling of the arrival of Islam to the Malay world, there is not a dissenting voice. All agree that it was a positive development, for the faith as well as for Malays. We also agree that our culture adapted well to Islam.
     Those sentiments have more to do with the human tendency to romanticize the past, especially one perceived as being glorious, rather than a true reflection of the reality. We spare ourselves from looking more critically at our past for fear that we would discover something that could blight that pristine image and sweet memory.
     Yet in all human endeavors nothing is pure white or all black. The noblest deeds often have a sliver of tarnish if we were meticulous and fearless in our scrutiny. At the other extreme, even in the horror and depravity of a Siberian prison camp one could still discern sparks of compassion and humanity, as Dostoyevsky noted in his House of the Dead.
     So it was with the coming of Islam to the Malay world. Those early Muslims came not to proselytize, though that was a well-established tradition with the faith, rather to trade. In that respect those Arab and Indian Muslim traders were no different from the subsequent European explorers who came for our spices.

     However, the natives were so enamored with the way those Muslim traders conducted themselves – with honor, piety and honesty – that soon their ways rubbed off on our ancestors and they too became Muslims. They, as a culture and community, were free minded enough to recognize a better way and did not hesitate to incorporate it as part of their own.
     Our ancestors were enthusiastic converts. They willingly absorbed this new faith based on its evident merit, and did so with an open mind. They accepted its teachings with complete trust.
     They could not however, claim to be diligent learners. If they were, they would have discovered a much bigger and richer dimension to Islam beyond the spiritual and metaphysical. After all this great faith had emancipated the ancient Bedouins and caused them to give up the more gruesome aspects of their culture like female infanticide and the utterly destructive “eye for an eye” sense of justice.
     Our forefathers would have also discovered the rich and varied intellectual traditions of this great faith, from the rationalist Mutazilites to the mystical Sufis. Islam, far from being a rigid and uncompromising faith, is malleable and adaptive, which explained its remarkable vibrancy and tolerance as demonstrated in such disparate places as South Asia and Iberian Europe.
     Those Arabs and Indians came to the Malay world in search of trade.  Spreading their faith was secondary, if at all, and only in so far as it would facilitate their trading. The primary pursuit of all traders was their customers’ satisfaction, not salvation. Traders want their customers to return.  Whether they would end up in heaven or hell is of little interest to those traders.
     Our ancestors missed this important but subtle point. They were so obsessed with their fate in the Hereafter that they missed learning the equally important but worldly trading activities of those earlier Arabs and Indians. Our forefathers forgot or failed to discern the elementary Islamic principle that our religious and worldly obligations were (still are) related if not the same. Earning a living, as with trading, and serving the needs of your fellow human beings, also a function of trading, are but part and parcel of ibadah (worshiping).

      Serve your fellow man and you serve God, exhorted our Prophet Mohammad (May Allah be pleased with him). That's what trading does. The prophet was himself a trader; he explicitly permitted and indeed encouraged trading even during the Hajj to reinforce the point that earning a living and worshiping Allah are but two sides of the same coin. Both are far from being incompatible.
     Thus while our ancestors learned much about Islam as a theology, they failed to acquire the skills of trading from those Muslim traders. Then consider the books that were translated. They were heavy on legends and the spiritual aspects of Islam but precious few on trade, financing, and the setting up of enterprises. Even on the theological aspects of Islam, our ancestors restricted themselves to learning only a very narrow interpretation of a particular fiqh (school of thought).

     Our ancestors were not at all curious of the vast richness of the intellectual heritage of Islam. Had they been, our ancestors would have learned that those ancient Muslim luminaries beginning with Al Kindi and on to Ibn Khaldun a few centuries later also wrote on such worldly topics as astronomy, physics, medicine and sociology. To them, knowledge was all encompassing, with no artificial differentiation between the spiritual and secular, or worldly and "other-worldly."

     Our sultans too were not diligent learners. Otherwise they would have discovered that the Caliphs of the Abbasid dynasty, for example, had their Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) where they gathered the leading scholars and learn from them. Instead, our sultans of yore (and even today) were content to be in the company of their gundek (concubines).     
     Malay society did benefit in one significant area. As Syed Naguib al-Attas noted, “… [T]he most important single cultural phenomenon directly caused by the influence of Islamic culture … was the spread and development of Malay language as a vehicle not only for epic, romantic and historical literature, but even more so for philosophical discourse.” This was one of the paramount factors that displaced the hegemony of Java in the region, Al Attas concluded.

     With the adoption of the Arabic jawi script, Malay culture transited from the oral to the written tradition. Whenever that happens to a society or culture, it is a significant advancement. We are indebted to those ancient Muslims for that precious gift.
     This unwillingness of our ancestors to learn about Islam beyond the theological carried a heavy price. We did not benefit as greatly as we should have from this encounter with Islam.

    Had our ancestors been more encompassing in exploring the vastness of the intellectual and other traditions of the Arabs and of Islam, as those folks in Iberia did, and studied the varied richness of this new faith, its tradition of hosting a wide spectrum of opinions and its great scholars, we could have triggered our own renaissance, our own Nusantara (Malay Archipelago) Andalusia as it were, in the fine tradition of the Iberians.

     We could have then, like those ancient Arabs who learned prodigiously from the Greeks, do likewise with the Arabs. Those early Arabs (unlike their modern counterparts) had no hesitation in translating Greek works and learning from Greek philosophers, even avowedly atheistic ones.  
     Instead our ancestors were content with being ardent but passive followers rather than engaged and active contributors. Had they done more of the latter, there would be no limits to the height of our achievement while at the same time enriching this great faith. Instead they were satisfied with being merely takers and followers; they did not contribute to nor enrich the faith.
     Medieval Europe discovered Islam through Andalusia only a few centuries before the faith landed in the Malay world. Unlike Malays who were interested only in the spiritual aspects of the faith and perhaps some accompanying philosophy and literature, the Europeans were interested in everything the ancient Iberian Muslims had to offer, especially their sciences and mathematics. And those early Muslims had much to offer in those areas.
     The subsequent European Renaissance and the continent’s exit from its medieval culture owed much to the contributions of those early Muslims. Yes, the Europeans also translated the Koran and the various religious treatises of ancient Muslim scholars, but unlike those in the sciences, mathematics and philosophy, they were done less for learning but more for demonstrating the “superiority” of Christianity and to “protect” the flock from an alien faith. Thus the ensuing translations were clearly jaundiced, presumably to spare the Europeans from yet another reformation.
     Imagine the intellectual emancipation of Malay society had our ancestors been more diligent in learning from those ancient Arabs the full breadth of the intellectual endeavors of Islam beyond merely the religious, and translated the great mathematical and scientific texts of the ancient Arabs as those Middle Ages Europeans did!  Our society could have gone on to make our own unique contributions and trigger our own Nusantara Renaissance.
     Even to this day while we have an abundance of Malay translations of religious texts and Arabic legends, no one has yet seen fit to translate such seminal tomes as Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimmah (An Introduction [to the study of History]), Ibn Rashid’s Kulliyat (Generalities [of medicine]), or al-Khwarizmi’s treatise on Algebra.

     While Middle Age Europe eagerly learned from Andalusia, the Europeans did not become Muslims. Only a few centuries later, Malays became Muslim through their encounter with those Muslim traders but we did not learn much from them.  This irony, as yet unexamined, baffles me. 
     It is this myopic take on Islam that prevents Malays from fully benefiting from this great faith. Like monkeys, we are content only with imitating, and then only the superficialities of the faith and the trappings of Arab culture while missing the core or essence. That was true then and it is still true today.
Next: European Intrusion Into The Malay World

This essay is adapted from the author's latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, 2013.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Arrival of Islam as a Momentous Event in Malay Culture

The Arrival of Islam as a Momentous Event in Malay Culture
M. Bakri Musa

The arrival of Islam was “the most momentous event in the history of the Malay archipelago,” to quote Syed Naquib al-Attas. It came not through the point of the sword but peacefully through trade. Islam did not land in a cultural and religious vacuum as Malays were already steeped in Hindu and animist traditions. Nor did the Arabs come to emancipate our ancestors; there was no messianic zeal or even an inclination to engage in their salvation.

      Those Muslims came only to trade; there was no intention to dominate or colonize. Their Islamic faith and the prevailing Malay culture interacted through gradual and mutual accommodation. The result was that “the local genius of the people shone through” in the melding of the two, to quote Farish Noor, respected scholar and frequent commentator on Malaysian affairs.

     This was vividly illustrated with my matriarchal Adat Perpateh. It coexisted peacefully with traditional male-dominated Islam, demonstrating a brilliant and workable synthesis of the two. Malays did not repudiate our traditional ways to become Muslims, and Islam was not adulterated to accommodate Malay culture. Both were remarkably malleable to and adaptive of each other.

     This accommodative attitude is best captured by the Minangkabau wisdom, Adat menurun, syarak mendaki (‘custom descended, religion ascended’), in reference to the belief that the Minangkabau descended from the highlands, the heartland of the culture, to meet Islam as it ascended from the coast. Both Islam and Malay were elevated as a consequence of the melding.

      Expressions like Adat basandi syarak, syarak basandi kitabullah (Customs based on shari’a; shari’a on Koran), and the more practical, Syarak mengato, adat memakai (Sharia prescribes, adat subscribes) attest to this grand accommodation. The sociologist Taufik Abdullah expressed it best, “The genius of Minangkabau is to synthesize contradictions harmoniously.” There were certainly contradictions real as well as imagined between Islam and traditional Malay culture, but our ancestors took them in stride and with composure.

      It is said that a Minangkabau baby is fed white rice and red chili early so it could learn at a very young age to tolerate opposites. Later we would go beyond mere tolerating to actually relishing contradictions. Thus as adults we could not do without our rice and sambal (chili paste).

     Of course all these happened several centuries ago, long before the advent of “purist” Islamists. Today these purists would condemn any accommodation of the faith as bida’a (adulteration). Little wonder that Malays of that religious persuasion are today busy rewriting history to obliterate our legitimate pre-Islamic existence. They would like us to believe that prior to the arrival of Islam, Malays were cultureless and devoid of any spiritual values, and that our history began only with the arrival of Islam.

     Thus instead of learning and benefiting from the wisdom and ingenuity of our ancestors in synthesizing contradictions harmoniously, these later-day Islamists are obsessed with “purifying” and "cleansing" our faith of what they deem to be “un-Islamic” and “primitive” elements.

     These purists obviously have not learned anything from our recent history. They should remember that the last time this “cleansing” effort took place it triggered the Padri War from 1821-37 in West Sumatra. That conflict succeeded only in further tightening of Dutch colonial rule.

     Today there is little risk that the Malay world would ever be colonized again, our leaders’ fear of neo-colonization notwithstanding. Colonialism is no longer cool, except in such odd places like Chechnya and Tibet. However there is a fate far worse than being colonized, and that is being left behind by a rapidly modernizing world.

     This preoccupation with Islamic “cleansing” distracts Malays, especially the idealistic younger set looking for a cause and meaning to their life, from making their rightful contributions to society. It is far too easy for their religious zeal to degenerate into something sinister, as with futile “jihads” against phantom enemies of Islam.

     A notorious and tragic example was the “Bali bomber,” Dr. Azahari Husin. Smart enough to be the top student at Malay College, Kuala Kangsar, he was later selected to pursue his engineering degree in Australia and subsequently, doctoral work in Britain.

     By all accounts he was a competent academic and an inspiring teacher. He could have made a significant contribution by training future engineers, quite apart from being a much-needed role model especially for young Malays. Somewhere along the line he acquired a zeal for “purifying” the faith. Instead of making a meaningful contribution, he ended up leaving behind a trail of death and destruction. A needless tragedy, for him, his family, and society!

     At the community level, this increased emphasis in religion has resulted in, among other things, our national schools taking on all the trappings of a religious institution. As a result non-Muslims are abandoning the system in droves making these schools all the more insular. Malays too are abandoning the system but for the very opposite reason – these schools are deemed not religious enough! As a consequence religious schools now mushroom all over the country.

     Unlike religious schools in America, those in Malaysia are heavy into religion, paying lip service to such important but deemed “secular subjects” as science and mathematics. Then we wonder why local companies cannot get enough qualified Malay applicants.

     This emphasis on religion has resulted in the massive expansion of the bureaucracy associated with Islam just to employ these otherwise unemployable Malay graduates. This further encourages Malays to enroll in religious schools, feeding this non-productive cycle. Today thousands of Malay talents are diverted not in producing something for the economy but in the destructive pursuit of keeping citizens along the “straight and narrow path,” as these zealots see it.

     If this were to continue, we could expect a modern version of the Padri War, with the Malay community in conflict with each other and be left behind. This time there would be no outside force coming to mediate or rescue us; we would be left destroying each other while the world bypassed us.

     The need for Malays and Muslims today is not to further divide us by heaping useless labels as liberal or conservative Muslims, or needlessly dividing us into tudung-clad versus the well-coiffured. As so eloquently stated in the Koran, true piety lies not in turning your face to the east or west (as in praying) rather one who spends his substance on his kin, the orphans, the needy, and the wayfarer.

    In order to do that we first must have the substance, that is, be productive. This obsession with the external manifestations of our faith distracts us from being so and thus contributing to the betterment of our society.  

Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

Next: The Lessons From Our Encounter With Islam

Sunday, August 09, 2015

The Ture Measure of a Culutre

The True Measure Of A Culture
M. Bakri Musa

The true measure of a culture is how well it prepares its members to sudden changes and challenges, especially when those are unanticipated or imposed from the outside. That different societies react very differently is obvious.

       Consider the March 2011 tsunami that demolished the coastal areas of Northern Japan. Thousands were killed and billions worth of properties damaged, with whole villages and families wiped out. Compare the reactions of the Japanese to that tragedy of August 2005 when Katrina hurricane devastated the southern coast of United States.

       The differences in reactions could not be more profound. Today only a few years after the tragedy, Northern Japan is almost fully recovered. In Louisiana they are still entangled in massive lawsuits, and the finger pointing has not yet stopped. Both Japan and America are developed societies, so we cannot account the difference to socioeconomic status, only to culture.

        Then there was the Southeast Asian tsunami of Christmas 2004 that devastated western Sumatra and elsewhere. In terms of human toll, that tragedy was a universe beyond Katrina.

         International relief workers involved in both tragedies observed how remarkably quickly those Indonesians resumed their "normal" routine. When hundreds of thousands of your countrymen had perished and whole towns and villages vanished, swept into the deep blue Indian Ocean, normalcy is hard to fathom. "Normal" is not quite the appropriate term. Nonetheless only a few months after the tragedy, school children were resuming their classes and singing their national anthem as they gathered underneath the shade of the lone surviving angsana tree.

         You would expect that to happen in America, a nation with vastly greater resources and much superior manpower and administrative machinery at its disposal, not Indonesia. Yes, America's industrial might was able to produce hundreds of portable homes and classrooms on short order, alas they were left sitting on empty lots to this day. The displaced residents are still unable to return home.

          Again, only culture can explain the difference in the two reactions.

          The Southeast Asian tsunami was also instrumental in ending the generations-long Aceh civil war. The iconic image of the tsunami devastation was the lone mosque that stood serenely in a sea of destruction. The sophisticated would attribute the catastrophe to shifts in ancient tectonic plates in the deep ocean floor, but to the science-illiterate Indonesians it was Allah sending them a powerful message. The Aceh civil war ended soon after.

          That is the supreme value of a culture; to help us react in positive ways to events that are beyond our control. That is the only true measure of a culture.

          Today in discussions on the "Malay problem," specifically the lack of economic development, much is made of the supposed deficiencies of our culture. To me that is not a valid measure of the value of a culture. America is the most economically and socially developed society on Earth, yet it could not handle the Katrina tragedy. We have to stop blaming culture as the explanation for everything especially when we are having glaring deficits elsewhere, as with our corrupt and incompetent leaders.

           Besides, there are just too many and obvious examples to debunk such a simplistic "explanation" as culture. Consider the Koreans. Those in North Korea share the same culture (including religion and language) as their brethren in the South. Today those two societies and countries could not be more different not only socio-economically and but also in mindset and many other ways.

           Incidentally, the Koreans would serve as a ready example to debunk those who would resort to blaming our "genes" or biology to explain our backwardness, the pet "explanation" offered by the likes of Mahathir.

           Then there is the current fascination and exaltation of Confucian ethics and system of values to "explain" the rapid rise of East Asia, first with Japan and later South Korea. What is conveniently forgotten is that this same culture was responsible for the monumental tragedies on the Chinese mainland during much of the 20th Century, and the militaristic rise of Japan and the consequent catastrophe inflicted on much of Asia during World War II.

            So quit blaming culture to "explain" Malay backwardness. As a mental exercise, imagine if Malay leaders (specifically those in UMNO as they have been in charge for over half a century) are not corrupt, and all the funds and resources that they have hogged unto themselves had been spent on improving our lot as with building better schools and having properly trained teachers and professors, we would be much better off today. We would also be spared those sordid financial scandals, from the Bank Bumiputra debacle of yore to the current 1MDB mess.
            Consider the opportunity cost of the current RM2 billion "donation" to Prime Minister Najib Razak. Had he spent that money to endow a university in honor of his late father in the fashion of the industrialist James Buchanan Duke (Duke University), imagine the good that would do to Malaysia. For one, the Razak name would forever be held in high esteem for not only being an exemplary leader of the country but also for producing a son with such farsightedness and philanthropy.  For another, Najib would have been spared the current humiliation of just another corrupt Third World leader who could be bought with a mere billion or two in devalued Malaysian ringgit.
            At another level, if only Malaysian leaders had been a wee bit competent in addition to being honest, there would be no limit to the nation's achievements. 
            This week, Najib and his wife were guests at Singapore's 50th anniversary. When Tun Razak and the senior Lee were Prime Ministers of their respective nations, the ringgit and Singapore dollar were on par in value. Today with their sons in charge, the ringgit has fallen to a third of the Singapore dollar, and continues to fall.
             The devaluation of the ringgit is at least quantifiable, not so the devaluation of the nation's maruah( respect).
            Getting honest and competent leaders has nothing to do with culture. Nor are you born corrupt or incompetent; rather you become one.

            There is yet another reason to be weary of those who resort to blaming culture to "explain" everything about a society. Strip off the sophistry and the underlying racism is exposed in all its ugliness.

             In the following few chapters I will recap the three defining moments in Malay culture: the arrival of Islam upon our shores, the subsequent series of European intrusions into our world, and the path we had chosen towards independence. I will examine how our culture had prepared us for those tumultuous changes. As is apparent we are still here, and that says something about the value and endurance of our culture. In the final analysis that is what counts; all else are but footnotes.

             There are critical and valuable lessons to be learned from those transformational experiences that are applicable to our current challenges.

Adapted from the author's latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

Next Excerpt:  Arrival of Islam as a Momentous Event in Malay Culture

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Labi Gone, Next Labu

Labi Gone, Next Labu!

M. Bakri Musa


            Remember Labu and Labi, the two bumbling idiots in P. Ramlee’s 1962 comedy movie of the same title?

            Today we have a political version of that duo. With the latest cabinet reshuffle, Labi is gone. Next should be Labu, aka Najib Razak. The leadership of Malaysia is too important to be entrusted to these jokers.

            In a twist of irony, this latest exercise eases the process. By firing his deputy, Najib has set an important precedent – decoupling cabinet positions from party leadership. It has been the tradition, and only that as it is unsupported by the constitution, that leaders of the ruling party should also lead the country.

            By having someone other than the party’s deputy leader be the Deputy Prime Minister, that sets the stage whereby the Prime Minister too could be someone other than the party’s President. That is the only silver lining to this latest reshuffle. That excepted, Najib’s new cabinet remains a yawner. The elusive “wow” factor still eludes him.

            In picking his new ministers Najib is taken in by the glint of pebbles, confusing that for the sparkle of diamonds, or in kampong expression, pasir berkilau disangkakan intan. No surprise there as Najib himself is a pebble. He values loyalty over smarts, pebbles over diamonds. Expect Malaysia to be continually grinded down.

            One new minister gushed that she knew of her appointment through the radio! Obviously Najib had not vetted her. Even a housewife is more careful in picking her kangkung.

            The new appointees were so eager that they were oblivious of the darkening clouds hovering over their leader, desperate as they are for personal advancement. May they be struck by the same lightning and be drenched in the downpour. Spare Malaysia their personal ethics and pebble-stone quality.

            By “promoting” four members of the parliamentary committee investigating 1MDB, Najib tried to sidetrack and emasculate that committee. I would have thought that completing a crucial national investigation would be the committee’s highest priority and patriotic mission, as its chairman had earlier professed and promised. As I said, these characters are pebbles, not diamonds.

            If Najib thinks that he would stymie the investigation, he is mistaken. Already the deputy chairman has vowed to continue. Now the committee has more opposition members, including its vice-chairman. Najib may rue his “brilliance!”

Muhyiddin No Hero

Muhyiddin’s protestation over 1MDB was neither forceful nor strategic in content, setting, or timing, despite the hullabaloo it triggered. His mild and belated attempt at being a Hang Jebat after over six years as a compliant sidekick a la Hang Tuah was awkward. It was, to borrow his phrase, “lebih daripada meluat” (beyond nauseating).

            Beyond nauseating because it was self-serving. Consider the content. “I told him [Najib] to let go of his post in 1MDB, but he didn’t want to listen!” protested poor Muhyiddin. Imagine had he said, “I could not get an unequivocal denial from the Prime Minister! On the contrary he admitted to having that account!”

            In Muhyiddin’s retelling, he is “the first minister to take a stand on 1MDB.” He bragged about being vocal in cabinet and UMNO Supreme Council meetings. Then he complained that he and his cabinet and Supreme Council members had been kept in the dark.

            You cannot have it both ways. A cabinet as well as Supreme Council colleague rebuked Muhyiddin, noting that he had chaired some of those meetings.

            The setting too was inappropriate. Muhyiddin should have picked a more influential audience as in a formal press conference preferably with foreign correspondents present, not his party’s divisional meeting. He could have then answered the inevitable questions.

            As for the timing, imagine if Muhyiddin had also submitted his resignation. His stock would have soared. By letting himself to be sacked, Muhyiddin’s subsequent ranting was seen more as the whining of an ex-wife about her former husband. Worse, it made Najib look strong. Now that took some doing!

            Muhyiddin did better in his later press conference. Although it was somewhat chaotic, nonetheless he exuded great confidence, a portrait not of a man who had been fired rather one who had had a great burden lifted off his broad shoulders. One wonders what is that great burden!

            He would have appeared more in command had he dispensed with the prop of his wife beside him and the throngs of hangers-on behind. You do not have to major in theater to appreciate these subtleties of effective stage presentation.

            Going by Muhyiddin’s account, it was Najib who was weak. Muhyiddin had to prod Najib as he could not utter the words to fire Muhyiddin to his face. Najib merely nodded. There was no “you are fired” Donald Trump-style. If Najib could not handle his deputy one-on-one, I wonder how he would fare with world leaders.
            Muhyiddin should have given his press conference first instead of that speech at the divisional meeting. The latter was more a sly maneuver to “suck up” to Mahathir.

            Mahathir was instrumental in Najib and Abdullah becoming Prime Ministers. Muhyiddin was trying to ingratiate himself to Mahathir in the hope of becoming his third dud pick.

            Malaysians should not let that happen. Yes, Mahathir successfully undid his first mistake and is now desperate to undo his second, with no sign of success in sight. If Mahathir again prevails, Malaysians should be grateful but not let him have this third pick. Malaysia has had enough of his mistakes.

            Muhyiddin is no hero. This is the Minister of Education who claimed that our schools and universities are the best. He could not be more wrong if he thinks the current outpouring of support he gets in the social media is an endorsement of his performance. Those are more expressions of citizens’ disgust with Najib, a variation of the enemy-of-your-enemy-is-my-friend dynamics.

Getting Labu Out

With Labi out, getting rid of Labu should now be easier. With 1MDB short of cash, bribing and influencing potential rebellious politicians would be that much more difficult. Nonetheless there are still other tools of persuasion, as Najib demonstrated with his latest cabinet reshuffle.

            Those too, like cash, are finite. There are just not enough cabinet slots or lucrative GLC directorships to accommodate all UMNO MPs and the many more avaricious local warlords, not counting those MPs from Barisan’s other component parties. Those from Sarawak and Sabah are “fixed deposits” only if their “inducements” keep flowing.

            Muhyiddin is from Johore, where UMNO began. Without inducements it would be difficult for him to keep his supporters there and elsewhere in tow. He is also no Tenkgu Razaleigh or Anwar Ibrahim. The chance of another Semangat 46 or Keadilan emerging to challenge UMNO and Najib is slim.

            Muhyiddin’s firing, cabinet reshuffle, “promotions” of parliamentary investigating committee members, “retirement” of Attorney-General Gani Patail, and the spectacular arrests of supposed “leakers” are all deliberate distractions. There would be no “leakers” had no crime been committed. They are arresting the good guys while the bad ones are running free.

            The central question remains. Did Najib Razak siphon funds into his personal account?

            Having failed in their attempts at denials, Najib’s pebble boys and girls are desperate for novel spins, the latest being “political donations” and “trust accounts.” I shudder to think that foreigners are buying our elections. What would these pebble-brains think of next? Najib had a royal flush in Vegas?

            Ignore these new distractions. The greatest challenge remains to get the truth on 1MDB out and the culprits brought to justice. That should be the duty and priority, ahead of personal interests and loyalty to individuals or party.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Najib's Nixon Moment

Najib’s Nixon Moment

M. Bakri Musa

The Special Task Force and Parliamentary Committee investigating 1MDB (Najib Administration’s business entity) are missing the crux of the matter. They are distracted by and consumed with extraneous and irrelevant issues, either through incompetence or on purpose, as being directed to do so.

            The consequence is that what was initially a problem of corporate cash-flow squeeze has now degenerated into a full-blown scandal engulfing not only Najib’s leadership but also the national governance. The only redeeming feature is that for once a national crisis does not parallel the country’s volatile racial divide, despite attempts by many to make it so.

            Torrent of ink has been expended on that tattooed Swiss national now in a Thai jail, the suspension of The Edge, the threatened lawsuit against the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), and the blocking of the Sarawak Report website. These are but distracting sideshows. Even veteran and hard-nosed observers and commentators are taken in by these distractions.

            The central and very simple issue is this:  Did Prime Minister Najib divert funds from 1MDB to his private account as alleged by WSJ and others?

The issue is simple because it requires only a brief “Yes” or “No” response. If the answer is “Yes,” then all else pales in comparison.

If the answer is “No,” then we could proceed to such secondary issues as how much debt 1MDB has incurred, the extent of the government’s exposure, and whether the company could service its loans or even generate any revenue, as well as the related question of who leaked confidential bank and other sensitive financial information.

            Thus all, whether pro or anti Najib, should be asking him to answer that simple central question whether public funds were diverted to Najib’s account. That is the Malaysian Nixonian equivalent of “What did the president know and when did he know it?” of the infamous Watergate scandal of the 1970s.

            Queries that do not confront this central issue serve only to distract matters. Likewise the commentaries; they succeed only in exposing the biases and political leanings of their writers. We all can be spared of that, as well as the obvious sucking-up gestures by Najib’s flatterers.

            If Najib chooses to remain silent, then the parliamentary committee and special task force must focus their investigations to answering that basic question. They do not need the cooperation of the Monetary Authority of Singapore to do that. Nor do they have to travel to Thailand and interview that tattooed character, or subpoena that moon-faced chubby fellow who is so taken in with Paris Hilton.

            Arresting low-level employees like the company dispatcher would only divert resources and distract the staff. Instead there should be laser-like focus on ascertaining the central truth. All other matters as who leaked the incriminating information are secondary.

            This allegation of illegal diversion of public funds is made not by some kucing kurap anti-government blogger or a disgruntled UMNO operative deprived of his lucrative government contracts but by WSJ. The only way to rebut the damning allegation is to show that the documents laid out were false by producing your own evidence to the contrary.

            Alternatively, sue the publication. When the Financial Times alleged impropriety on the part of Tengku Razaleigh regarding the Bank Bumiputra fiasco of yore, he sued. And won; the rare occasion when that influential publication was humbled!

            If Najib were to sue WSJ, the ensuing depositions would uncover the truth. Lawsuits however, are expensive and protracted. All these hullabaloos would go away and confidence restored fast if Najib were to answer with a simple “No” to the central question, and if his answer were indeed the truth and could be substantiated as such. Then he can sue WSJ and everyone else.

            Tengku Razaleigh called upon those Malaysians who know the truth on this matter to come forward. There are only a few who are so privileged. They owe it to their fellow citizens to do so. As he so wisely put it, “Not telling the truth is not an option.”

            Malaysia however should not be held hostage to their honesty and integrity, or lack of either. We all must do our part to make sure that the truth be exposed.

            I am heartened by the reactions of our corporate leaders. Nazir Razak and Tony Fernandes, both widely admired and highly accomplished, have condemned the suspension of The Edge. They have done more; they praised the paper!

I applaud Nazir for another reason. What he did was another not-so-subtle rebuke to his oldest brother. He did it earlier as when he and his other brothers (minus Najib of course) reminded everyone that their father died leaving only a modest estate. In our culture, Nazir’s action took great courage. He did it in the finest Jebat tradition of fidelity to principle and country, over kin and leaders.

            We need others to do likewise. The Bar Council has taken an exemplary lead; likewise the Raja Muda of Johore and a former Mufti of Perlis. When exposing a crime is treated as a crime, the former Mufti reminded us, then we are ruled by criminals. The young prince upbraided politicians who are more loyal to their party than their fellow citizens.

            This 1MDB scandal threatens to not only bring down Najib but also damage Malaysia’s credibility, much like Nixon’s Watergate was to him and to America. It took the courage of Nixon’s closest allies in his own Republican Party to convince him to do the honorable thing. As a result, America was spared an unnecessary crisis, and a generous nation later forgave Nixon. With that, his monumental legacies, as with his engagement with China, remain intact.

            Najib does not have any positive legacy despite his over six years as Prime Minister, longer than Nixon was as President. Nonetheless Najib could still save his skin if he were to do the honorable thing – tell the truth.

            If he does not, then it is up to those closest to him to do the honorable thing – tell him the truth. The chance of that happening however, is remote as UMNO is bereft of courageous individuals who could see beyond their party (and its lucrative patronage) and tell it straight to Najib’s face.

            Deputy Prime Minister Muhyyiddin’s belated protest is too little, too late. It is also self-serving. Now if he were to resign in protest, that would mean something. Meanwhile as a member of Najib’s cabinet, he and the other ministers are collectively responsible and should be held jointly accountable.

            The only person who could force Najib would be Barisan’s Sarawak leaders, in particular Chief Minister Adenan Satem. His support is critical to Najib. Thus far Adenan is satisfied with squeezing the maximum out of Najib in his hour of crisis to benefit Sarawak. In the long term however, Adenan should remember that Sarawak, like the rest of the country, would progress only if the central government is competent and honest. An inept, corrupt and distracted central government would be detrimental to all, Sarawak included.

            It is time for Najib to do or made to do a Nixon. If Najib were to do it voluntarily then he could control the timing and to some extent, subsequent developments. Specifically he could choose his successor. Nothing in the constitution mandates that his current Deputy be the one.

If he were to pick Tengku Razaleigh, a man of proven leadership and impeccable integrity, not only would that meet widespread approval including within Parliament, he would have secured for himself a significant legacy. He would also better his nemesis, Tun Mahathir, in one respect. The Tun chose two duds as his successors and in the process wasted a precious decade for Malaysia.

            Najib’s personal fate does not interest me. He could suffer a Marcos for all I care, but if Malaysia were to degenerate into another Philippines because of Najib, then those who remain silent or don’t take a stand now must bear some responsibility. How would they answer their grandchildren’s lament?

            May God bless those many brave and righteous Malaysians who have done and continue to do their part, and at great risks. I salute them! We must remain focused on the central issue:  Did Najib embezzle those funds?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Thoughts At The End of Ramadan - On Being A Muslim

Thoughts At The End of Ramadan – On Being A Muslim

M. Bakri Musa

A Muslim is one who subscribes to the five pillars of our faith – attests to the oneness of Allah and Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., as His Last Messenger (shahadah); prays five times a day; fasts during Ramadan; gives zakat; and conditions permitting, undertakes the Hajj.

            Significant for its absence is any explicit reference to the Koran, the complete and final guide from God “for all mankind, at all times, and till the end of time.”

            The essence of the Koran is Al-amr bi 'l-ma’ruf wa 'n-nahy ani 'l-munkar. It is referred to many times in the text. The approximate translation is, “Command good and forbid evil;” or in Malay, “Biasakan yang baik, jauhi yang jahat.” Succinct and elegant in both languages as it is in the original classical Arabic!

As this central message is not one of the five pillars of our faith, no surprise then that it is frequently missed by the masses. It is also often lost in the thick tomes of religious scholars, erudite sermons of bedecked ulamas, and frenzied jingoisms of zealous jihadists.

Enlightened scholars of yore had suggested that the Koran’s essence be the sixth pillar, after and presumably below Hajj. That did not gain traction.

As my Imam Ilyas reminded us in his Eid khutbah last Friday, those five pillars of Islam demand the least from us. They are the easiest undertakings. Shahadah could be executed in a single breath even for those unfamiliar with the Arabic tongue, while the daily prayers consume a few minutes longer. For those who consider the month-long Ramadan a challenge, consider that millions do without their meals every day, and with no end in sight. As for zakat and Hajj, both have finite and quantifiable costs.

The greatest challenge for Muslims then is not those five imperatives rather to “command good and forbid evil.” That would demand the most from us. As such, it should be priority number one. For even if you were to diligently perform all those five traditional duties, but if you do not do good and refrain from evil, then all would be for naught.

There is no point in donating zakat if your wealth is acquired through corruption. Whatever religious “brownie points” you would garner from that seemingly generous gesture could not begin to compensate for the loss to the family whose child had died because the money meant for the local hospital had been siphoned into your pocket. Likewise, you mock the sanctity of the Hajj if on returning you resume condemning your fellow believers even before the cough from your desert-induced irritated throat had not yet cleared up.

A saying attributed to our prophet has it that a prostitute was admitted to Heaven because she once saved a dog dying of thirst by bringing it a bowl of water. Performing the rituals of the five pillars would not be a regular routine for someone like her. Yet an All-Forgiving and Generous Allah rewarded her for that single good deed.

If that simple act of kindness is so esteemed, imagine how much more generous Allah would be to a veterinarian! Yet many were outraged when Muslim veterinary students were handling their ‘patient’ pigs and dogs.

Philosophers through the ages, Muslims and non-Muslims, atheists and believers, have pondered the meaning of good and evil. Believers have also wrestled with the added issues of God’s will and individual responsibility.

Al-Asha’ari posed this theological dilemma. Imagine a child and an adult in Heaven. The child asked God why the man was given that privilege. The reply was that he had done much good in his lifetime. (Note again the emphasis on doing good!) The child then asked why God had taken him so soon thus preventing him from doing good later in his life. To which the reply was that God knew that the child would become a sinner and thus spared him the terrible fate. Thereupon cries arose from those condemned, “Oh Lord! Why didn’t you take us before we became sinners?”

While such ponderings make for vigorous class discussions, at the practical level the issue of good versus evil is clear and not at all complicated. Killing, stealing and cheating are all evil; improving the lot of your people, making sure that they have potable water, adequate shelter, good schools and competent healthcare, is good. Putting public funds into your bank account is evil. No equivocation there. Yet many go through contortions to make evil appear good. That in itself is evil.

Jonathan A C Brown in his book Misquoting Muhammad relates an episode when the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar was asked by the country’s powerful ruler about passages in the Koran and hadith to make his rule “Islamic.” Bring justice and prosperity to your people, the Grand Mufti replied, and I will find the appropriate verses to sanctify your policies as Islamic.

Yes, bring justice, improve citizens’ lot, obey the rule of law and respect citizens’ rights, those are the proven paths to an Islamic state; not grandiose mosques, bloated religious departments, or Azzan blasting on your radios.

As to whether going against a leader who is corrupt and abuses his power is good or evil, ponder the last line of Caliph Abu Bakar’s immortal inaugural speech. “Obey me so long as I obey Allah and His Messenger. And if I do not, then I have no right to your obedience.” (Approximate translation.)

Do good not only to others but also equally important, to ourselves. That means nurturing and being generous to ourselves, while distancing from those who would harm and abuse us.

“Others” refers both to the living as well as physical world around us. We can readily comprehend about being good to our fellow humans or other living creatures, but less appreciated is that we must also be good to our physical world. We are but trustees (vice-regents) of this universe, says the Koran. 

Illegal logging is evil not only because it is stealing from the people but also because the activity degrades the environment, causing erosion, silting of rivers, and consequent flooding. You may accrue untold riches from illegal logging and be generous in your zakat but those do not compensate for the miseries you caused fishermen whose fishing grounds are destroyed or families made homeless from the resulting floods.

I prefer my own Malay translation of the golden rule. Its rhythmic alliteration aside, it is soft and subtle yet no less powerful, in tune with our culture. Biasakan yang baik, or make doing good your habit or norm. Meaning, not because you are commanded to do so, rather it’s in your nature or character.

Likewise with jauhi yang jahat, or distancing ourselves from evil. We may not always be able to forbid evil, or doing so would impose considerable risks, but we all can move away from evil.

Biasakan yang baik; jauhi yang jahat is truly a message for all mankind, at all times, and till the end of time. Joyous Hari Raya is an appropriate occasion to be reminded of this.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Leader's Massive Ego to Change A Culture

A Leader's Massive Ego in Attempting to Change A Culture 
M. Bakri Musa

Terrible things are done in many cultures in the name of honor. To some, the natural reaction would be either smug dismissal (those barbarians!) or comforting acceptance (all cultures have their warts!). That would also provide a ready excuse for continuing on business as usual.

        Or we could have wannabe heroes or even real ones with a messianic mission to change that culture. Many have tried, and equally many have failed. For Malays, there was Mahathir, and before him, Datuk Onn. Undoubtedly there will be many more.

       This wanting-to-change-our-people (or culture) zeal is a particular delusion of leaders with massive egos. Our only solace is that Onn and Mahathir did not do more damage. The Chinese under Mao were not so lucky. Millions perished under his Cultural Revolution and other dubious endeavors aimed at "changing" his people.

       This preamble is merely to put forth three main points. The first is that the values of any culture are internally consistent; culture is essentially the keeper of society's values. Customs, rituals and other accouterments of culture must be assumed to be positive; there is no such thing as a "bad" culture, as it would have been eliminated a long time ago. Each culture should thus be examined on its own terms and not by comparison to others.  This truism makes such calls as "Be more like the Chinese!" or "Muslims need our own Martin Luther!" be so much wasted breaths. 

       The American anthropologist Franz Boas was the first to put forth this proposition. This cultural relativism does not mean that there are no absolutes or universalities in human values. Killing and inflicting harm on your fellow humans are evil deeds in all cultures. On the other hand, "honor" is also another cultural absolute and universal value. In this way killing becomes justified in the name of honor. Patriotism is another variation of honor; we kill "them" so as to protect the honor of "our" country, or variations thereof.

       The second point is that meaningful differences in the various cultures would be manifested only when they intersect. That seems obvious. When the early Chinese came to Malaysia in the 15th Century, they did so with no intention to dominate. They had no colonial aspirations. Consequently, the two cultures melded freely, with the Sultan of Melaka marrying a Chinese and those immigrants learning Malay and adopting the trappings of Malay culture, as with their songs and daily attire. 

       As no one was concerned with dominating or demonstrating self-proclaimed superiority over the other, there was no corresponding obsession with maintaining one's racial or cultural purity.

       Likewise when the South Indians landed in the northwestern part of the peninsula, they mixed and intermarried freely with Malays. A generation later their descendents became ministers, governors and even a prime minister. If they were Ketuanan Melayu champions at the time, no one batted an eyelid.

       This natural tendency for cultural osmosis and mutual adaptation would vanish if one culture's avowed purpose was to dominate, as with the arrival of colonial powers. The dynamics of the interaction would then change dramatically.

       When the Europeans landed on the Malay world, they were motivated initially by their capitalistic instinct to monopolize the lucrative spice trade. It did not take long for that to degenerate into total domination in all spheres, especially political. Thus colonialism was born, and with it, the ranking of native cultures vis a vis colonial ones.

       The colonials believed that it was their burden, imposed no less by their God, to "elevate" those natives. To reinforce that collective mindset, they had to create certain myths, like that of the "noble savage" (to grant those natives a modicum of respect; they are savages nonetheless and thus needed to be "tamed") and the "lazy native."

       The reaction of the natives too was governed by their cultural values. The Indians, accustomed to their rigid caste system, readily accepted the superior role of the colonials. Those white men and women became the new "super upper" caste, towering over the native maharajahs and Brahmins. That was the only conceivable explanation to account for the ease with which the British with only a few thousand colonial civil servants could rule hundreds of millions of Indians spread over an entire continent.

       The Malay reaction to colonialism was very different, again governed by our culture. Ingrained in our culture never to challenge a ruler, we did not directly do so with the colonialists, except for a few brave souls. They were readily and brutally disposed of, their corpses desecrated as a grim reminder to those who would be similarly tempted. Just to be sure, the British co-opted our sultans so that any revolt would be not just against the British but also our sultans, Allah's representative on earth.

       The only avenue left for Malays who still had streaks of independence was to undertake what psychologists refer to as passive-aggressive resistance, utilizing the technique of quiet non-cooperation. That is the only weapon of the weak, to borrow James C. Scott's phrase, and that was how we chose to oppose the British.

        My third point is that since culture is the aggregate behaviors and attitudes of its members, it is the height of arrogance for anyone to even attempt to change a culture. Any change must by definition come from the ground and not be imposed from above. If only Onn and Mahathir, or Mao, had known this, they would have been spared much grief. For Mao, he would have spared millions of his people even greater misery.

        This does not mean that culture cannot be changed; indeed change is a constant with any culture, only that the adaptation must originate with the masses. Often these changes are slow and subtle, their cumulative effects not evident till generations later. Others may be more rapid or even dramatic as when triggered by major social or physical upheaval imposed on that society. 

       Such tumultuous physical or social stresses would not automatically bring about changes in the culture, only that such events would provide the opportunities for that. This is the only time when leadership could prove decisive. Without such a leadership, that society and culture would quickly degenerate, becoming dysfunctional and unable to survive. Absent those tumultuous changes, the role of leaders would be minimal; change could only come from below and within.

This essay is based on the author's latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

Next:  The True Measure of A Culture