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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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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.

Friday, August 26, 2005

A Tribute to Kassim Ahmad

A Tribute to Kassim Ahmad
M. Bakri Musa


First posted on www.Malaysia-Today.net August 23, 2005

Reading Kassim Ahmad’s recent interview with Zainon Ahmad (the Sun Weekend Edition, August 19, 2005) excited and invigorated me. It brought back the joy and exhilaration I had on reading for the first time Kassim’s The Characterizations of Hang Tuah while in high school in the 1950s. He was in his twenties when he wrote it, but his brilliance and courage shone through clearly despite his youth.

In the recent interview, despite his age I am thrilled that Kassim still displays his characteristic intellectual sparks, vigor and agility.

Kassim’s novel interpretation of our literary classic, Hikayat Hang Tuah, forced me (and others) to look differently at our culture and world. I felt a sense of grand wonderment after reading his work, as if a thick veil had been lifted off me. Kassim whetted my youthful rebellious spirit. It fortified me to challenge the certitudes forced upon me by my culture. In the process, I saw the beauty and elegance of the world and of my culture. At the same time, I also became painfully aware of the ugliness of that world and my culture.

Today, decades later and presumably much wiser as well as more accepting, I am still filled with wonderment on reading Kassim’s interview, but for different reasons.

Here I am in the mecca of capitalism and fully embracing as well as benefiting from free enterprise, full of admiration and respect for this man who is an ardent and committed socialist.

I believe firmly that free enterprise is the best avenue for achieving individual and as well as society’s fulfillment, while Kassim is fully committed to the egalitarian ideals of socialism. Our utopia is the same: a just, caring and prosperous society where citizens are free to pursue their personal ideals and dreams.

While I am geographically separated from Kassim by the vast Pacific, and philosophically even further away from him, yet I feel intellectually close to him. I greatly appreciate his works and welcome his views and ideas. I admire the man for his courage, talent and commitment. I respect him even more for such qualities are rare, and even rarer is the combination.

In Malaysia today, specifically in Malay culture, we remain deeply divided over trivial differences. We do not hesitate labeling each other as traitors for inconsequential political differences. With impunity, we denigrate each other as infidels for simply daring to express minor differences in interpretation of our faith. Our leaders disparage our young as being ungrateful for boldly asking uncomfortable questions.

It is as if we expect Malays to be clones of one another. In our culture, we are told to loathe and ostracize the black sheep. In doing this we implicitly compare ourselves to a flock of sheep, mindlessly following the shepherd. Indeed leaders especially those with a dictatorial bent would like their followers to be like sheep.

It is well to remember that while a benevolent shepherd would lead his flock to greener pastures, a blind one could just as easily lead them off the cliff, and a deaf one to the wolf’s den.

I have been exchanging views and letters with Kassim Ahmad for quite some time. The medium of the Internet brings us closer together as if we were in nearby villages. If a core capitalist like me and a staunch socialist like Kassim can be respectful of each other’s views and be welcoming of each other’s contributions, I fail to see why our larger community remains unnecessarily divided into liberal and fundamentalist Muslims, UMNO and PAS politicians, or monarchist and republican Malays. It pains me immensely, and I am certain Kassim too, to see our people thus polarized. Our diversity is our strength, not our weakness. It is our prized asset, not a cursed liability. We are humans, not sheep; we should expect and indeed welcome differences in taste, views and choices.

In the classic epic, the two heroes Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat could not resolve their differences. Their conflict consumed their friendship, and ultimately their honor and lives. It also divided and destroyed their community. There is no reason why modern day Hang Tuahs and Hang Jebats have to follow suit and allow that to happen to themselves and their community. If we must battle it out, let it be in the battlefield of ideas, and only there.


Anak Yang Soleh (The Prodigal Son)

When growing up, my father used to tell stories of Anak Yang Soleh (The Prodigal Son), the individual who would do society good. His reasons for relating such stories were obvious, as expressions of paternal duty as well as hope.

As his world extended only to what had been taught to him by his forefathers, my father’s model of prodigal sons were all religious figures except for Zaaba, the legendary scholar; Hamka, the alim and philosopher; and Munshi Abdullah, the teacher and chronicler.

Zaaba had a special place in my father’s heart, as well as mine. He was from a village nearby, indeed he was a member of our suku (tribe), hence our prideful sense of reflected glory. I remember listening in rapt awe on Radio Malaya the public oration delivered on his being awarded a Doctorate of Letters from the University of Malaya in Singapore on his retirement. My father had indeed set a very high standard for me!

I came to know of Hamka and Munshi Abdullah through their writings. Living in an alien world away from my familiar culture, these three provide my anchoring stability that bonds me to my traditions and values.

In my view, Kassim Ahmad is one anak yang soleh. It pains me greatly that our society has chosen to ignore this man. Kassim however would prefer this state of affair. The last time the authorities paid heed to Kassim, he ended up in jail under the Internal Security Act! When members of the Islamic establishment read or claimed to have read Kassim’s works, they labeled him anti-hadith.

In time, those establishment ulama will disappear with their pension, but Kassim and his ideas will endure. Thanks to insight of Kassim, our grandchildren and their grandchildren will still be debating Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat, and learning useful lessons from the discourse.

I am always amused when readers compliment me for my “courage” in expressing my views so freely. I live in a society that prizes individual freedom; besides, I am beyond the reach of the ISA. In truth, it is individuals like Kassim Ahmad who are truly courageous. They have felt the wrath of the authorities and yet continue to speak out against injustices and tyranny.

Kassim Ahmad rejoined UMNO in 1986. He remains a severe and persistent critic of the Malaysian brand of “politics as usual,” in particular political shenanigans and blatant corruptions. Nonetheless, he can be generous in his praises. In this interview as well in his earlier essays, he spoke warmly and favorably of Tun Mahathir. This led many to the mistaken belief that the man had “gone soft” or worse, became an apologist for the status quo.

This latest interview should disabuse those who misjudge the core character of this great man.


[For those interested, Kassim’s website is: www.kassimahmad.blogspot.com]

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