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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.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Memoirs Serve to Inform and Educate

Memoirs Serve to Inform and Educate

[This is an expanded version of my essay published in the Sun, Weekend Edition, September 16, 2005]

It is heartening that Tun Mahathir is busy penning his memoir. I look forward to reading his accounts of the pivotal moments in our history, as well as his take on the key personalities.

I never read history in school or college. Professional historians, with rare exceptions, have talent elsewhere other than in writing. My teachers’ soporific teaching style did not help either.

The accounts of or by players in history on the other hand, fascinate me. I am drawn not by the chronology of events or exposition of facts, rather by the interplay and dynamics of the major players.

In reading Kissinger’s voluminous writings, I am struck at his callousness towards nations where America has little strategic interest, like the poor hapless Cambodians.

As a physician, I am attuned to the nuances of human behavior, in particular how we communicate. “I am fine!” can mean differently from one patient to the next, depending on the tone and body language. In reading these memoirs, I have the advantage of appreciating such subtleties. Granted, one cannot assess body language in a written work, still there are other clues like context and choice of words.

A recent innovation – oral history – provides another dimension. Competently handled, it can be very informative. In the hands of sycophantic amateurs, it degenerates into an unrestrained love fest.

There is an oral history recording of the late Tunku Abdul Rahman. Judging from the transcript (K Das & The Tunku’s Tapes), the sessions were nothing more than reminiscences interspersed with bitching sessions between a has-been journalist and an ageing statesman. The historical value was minimal.

Obligation to Document

A memoir, even when ghost-written and self-serving, involves some personal reflection. After reading Lee Kuan Yew’s memoir where he related being shocked as a youth seeing a British couple exuberantly copulating on the deck of a steamship, I understand better the republic’s priggish attitude towards sex.

Similarly, I appreciate better the prickly relationship between Singapore and Malaysia after reading an account by Mahathir where he was snubbed and mistaken for a driver when visiting a Chinese home in Singapore.

Both had plenty of other experiences in their youth, but the fact that they remember those specific incidents and more importantly, feel compelled to mention them, is indeed revealing.

Tunku Abdul Rahman died without writing his memoir, except for his columns in a local daily that he later recycled into a book. A few of his contemporaries like Khir Johari and Ghaffar Baba are still alive, but they have no sense of obligation to document their views and recollections. When asked on his recent birthday why he had not written his memoir, Ghazali Shafie, a former foreign minister and member of the commission that created Malaysia, replied that he had no need to as his life is an open book. What a pathetic excuse!

Another diplomat, Razali Ismail, had the rare honor of presiding over the UN’s General Assembly. He too does not feel obliged to record his experiences. Surely this onetime English major could craft some readable prose without too much difficulty. One does not need Churchill’s flair to pen a readable account.

What do the Ghazali Shafies, Musa Hitams and Razali Ismails do in their retirement? There is only so much golf that one can play. They have been blessed with interesting and rewarding lives, surely they must have the urge to write about them.

I would go further. As the fortunate few who have had the opportunity to guide our nation, they have an obligation to document their experiences.

I am told that the late Tun Ismail, briefly Prime Minister pro tempore, had his memoir locked up as he had some very frank remarks about his contemporaries. I hope his trustees will see fit to release it soon.

Instructive Examples

After reading Kassim Ahmad’s poignant account of his incarceration under the Internal Security Act (Universiti KeduaSecond University), I have nothing but contempt for the establishment. I cried where Kassim forlornly recounted how the guards destroyed his painstakingly-written manuscript.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s moving account of his banishment to Pulau Buru, Nyanyian Sunyi Seorang Bisu (The Mute’s Soliloquy), is a powerful indictment of the inhumanity of the Suharto administration, much more powerful than any Amnesty International report.

I am currently reading a memoir of Mustapha Hussin (Malay Nationalism Before UMNO), a major figure in the nationalist movement but a minor one in our history. Not only did he give some interesting insights on the local reactions to the Birch murder, a pivotal event in our history, but also a rare personal account on a little known fact: local citizens as the Japanese fifth column during World War II.

On the occasion of his 80th birthday, Royal Professor Ungku Aziz related some of his experiences as Vice Chancellor of the University of Malaya. One in particular was highly instructive. He was requesting funds to buy books for the library. The senior civil servant in charge denied his request on the basis that there were still some books there that had not been read! That little anecdote will never appear in any official documents or archives, but it speaks volumes of the caliber of our civil servants as well as the generally sorry state of our public libraries. I wish the Ungku will relate many more such insightful personal recollections in his memoir.

Sadly, many of the giants in our history like Suffian Hashim, our first Chief Justice, and Ismail Ali, first central banker, died without recording their experiences and insights.

As Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir contributed much. His memoir will prove that even in retirement he has much more to give.

The writer has just released his latest book (co-written with his wife Karen), With Love, From Malaysia, an account of their life together in Malaysia in the mid 1970s.

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