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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.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Merdeka In All Its Manifestations

Merdeka In All Its Manifestations

[Reposted from www.Malaysia-Today.net (September 4, 2005). This is an expanded version of the one published in the Merdeka supplement of the Sun]

As we celebrate Merdeka Day, we joyfully recall the events that led to it. It is equally important for us to ponder on what did not happen or could have happened. What took place was obvious; Malaysia gained her freedom from colonial rule. What did not take or could have taken place requires some reflection.

Unlike Independence Day celebrations of many nations, we do not have to pay tributes to slain warriors. Thanks to the wisdom of our earlier leaders, there were no “glorious” wars of independence and therefore no fallen heroes. Further, with many nations the dream of freedom quickly degenerated into a nightmare of national tragedies. Malaysia was thankfully spared such horrors.

Gandhi with his nonviolence philosophy humbled the mighty British into granting India its independence peacefully, but he could not tame his fellow citizens bent on massacring each other. The Indonesians fought hard for their independence, only to see their cherished freedom debauched by their egomaniacal president, Sukarno.


True Hero Of Our Independence

Our first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman held true to our prophetic tradition of the pen being mightier than the sword. He resorted to the negotiating table, not the battlefield, and enlisted lawyers not soldiers in our struggle for independence. Honoring fallen heroes of such wars as martyrs, national heroes, or freedom fighters does not lessen the pain their loved ones endure. We owe Tunku a massive debt of gratitude for sparing us such misfortune. He was truly the quiet and unsung hero of our independence.

This fact needs emphasizing, lest we forget. Already there are “revisionist” historians and other commentators intimidating that such an honor belongs to the likes of some obscure failed politicians and former thugs and terrorists. To me, the true hero is not the dashing rescuer who saved the drowning damsel, rather the young boy who kept his finger in the dike and thus prevented a flood.

Tunku went further. Whereas India and Indonesia degenerated into anarchy, Malaysia enjoyed a decade of peace and prosperity following independence. This led Tunku to boast that he was the “world’s happiest prime minister.” God later humbled him and the nation. The 1969 tragic race riot took place during his watch; it remains a blemish on our history.

If Tunku’s wisdom was in sparing us the dream from disintegrating into a nightmare, his successor’s genius was in giving substance to that collective dream. Tun Razak’s bold rural development schemes and imaginative economic initiatives gave Malaysians their greatest freedom – that from privation and poverty. Later, Dr. Mahathir drove development to greater heights, and equally greater excesses.

These leaders have done their part. It would take an even greater measure of genius and wisdom from today’s leaders to fulfill the promise of merdeka in all its facets.


Abridgment Of Our Merdeka

It would be a great irony and outright perversion if today’s leaders were to deprive Malaysians of their personal merdeka in the name of defending the nation’s freedom. Yet today hundreds are being incarcerated without being charged, let alone tried in court. The state has summarily stripped them of their precious rights as citizens and as human beings.

We do not respect nor honor the spirit of merdeka when we arbitrarily abridge the freedom of our citizens. The authorities crudely remind the citizens that they cannot read certain books, attend particular plays, or watch specific movies. For Muslims, the stricture is even narrower: Islam is what the government says it is; we deviate at our own earthly peril.

While lamenting the shortage of books written in Malay, these leaders do not hesitate in banning the works of Malay writers who dare express independent thought. The nation’s foremost thinker, Kassim Ahmad, had his Hadith: A Re-Evaluation banned. He also endured years of incarceration for his political views.

A sinister recent development is the intimidation of journalists through seizures of their computers, and the jailing of writers for what they write. Far from being intimidated, Malaysians continue to express themselves freely through other media, in particular, the Internet. That is a singular tribute to the ingenuity of Malaysians.

The attitude towards our best and brightest is no more enlightened. We want them to think and be creative, but we insist that they conform. Top positions in universities are given to pseudo academics whose chief function is to ensure that faculty members abide by Akujanji (a loyalty oath) rather than to their scholarly duties.

It would indeed be a perversion if not a great tragedy were we to be freed from the yoke of colonial oppression only to be subjugated and suppressed by our own kind. We are ever vigilant of threats from outside, we must remain equally wary of intrusions from within. The best of intentions and the noblest of motives do not prevent their perversion; the proverbial road to hell is paved with the best of intentions. I look askance at the restrictions placed on citizens all in the name of the “public good.”


Loss to the Nation

It is also a sad commentary when the cream of the younger generation leaves us; a loss we can hardly afford. It is even sadder when we fail to develop the young talent in our villages. That represents a double tragedy, for the individuals as well as the nation.

Today’s headlines carry unending tales of financial scandals and shenanigans, from approved permits for importing cars dispensed to cronies to the massive losses at government-linked companies. The waste is colossal. As staggering as that may be, an even far greater loss is the opportunity cost. Had we spent the resources on educating our young, building good schools, and training teachers, there would be no limit to the height of their – as well as the nation’s – achievements.

The first generation of leaders freed us from British rule; the next lifted us from privation and poverty. Tun Mahathir, the last leader, gave us economic freedom, albeit to the exclusion of other freedoms. The challenge for today’s leaders is to give us merdeka in all its manifestations.

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