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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.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Remembering Tun Razak

Tun Abdul Razak bin Hussein
(March 11th 1922-January 14, 1976)


Thirty years ago on January 14, 1976, our nation was stunned with the sudden and unexpected announcement of the death of its Prime Minister, Tun Razak. He was only 53 years old, much younger than some UMNO Youth leaders. It turned out later that only the announcement was unexpected.

The Tun had been suffering for a few years from a lethal form of cancer. His physicians and advisors had kept that news secret not only from the citizens but also presumably from his family. This great patriot died in a foreign land among strangers and without his loving family at his bedside.

I had always wondered what advice the Tun’s physicians and closest advisors gave him when they knew the end was near. I could not fathom why he and they did not take the nation into their confidence and share the grim news of his serious illness much earlier.

As a surgeon, I am intimately involved in the care of my patients who are at the end of their life. When death is imminent, I always apprise them and their families of the sad reality so I could discern their wishes. I do everything possible to comply with their requests.


Inspiring Role Model

Tun Razak’s death came a few days after I returned to Malaysia with the intention of staying permanently. I had been away for over a decade; he was the reason for my returning.

A few years earlier I had finished my training and started my private practice abroad. I also had a young family on the way, and life was good. However I had the unsettled feeling that I was not quite ready for the life of a suburbanite with a station wagon and a dog, together with a cottage at the lakeside.

Longing for my roots, I began reading about Malaysia, and came upon a sympathetic article on the late Tun. While hitherto my heroes had been the brilliant scientists and legendary surgeons I work with, now I had someone from my own culture to look up to.

I was impressed by the Tun’s outstanding achievements at Malay College, where he excelled academically as well as on the playing field. Later as a brilliant young civil servant, his British superiors recognized his talent and sent him to Britain to read law.

Looking over his early life, I could not help but admire his willingness to give up what seemed like a very promising and secure career in the civil service to pursue the then highly unpredictable and uncertain field of politics. Many of its practitioners had ended up being jailed, exiled, or worse.

Even more admirable, the Tun could just as easily have stayed back in Britain and started a lucrative practice as a barrister there, or applied his considerable managerial and executive talent working for one of the British corporations. He could have had a very rewarding career over there.

That he opted not to do so and returned home to serve his country inspired me to do likewise. I was unabashedly modeling myself after him except for this very significant difference. I had no love for politics; I would serve in my chosen profession instead.

Nearly two decades earlier, the Tun had visited my old school in Kuala Pilah and had exhorted us, especially Malay students, to opt for the sciences. Fortunately, science, especially medicine, is my passion, and I will serve in that field. That they were then too few Malays pursuing the sciences only increased my resolve to do my part in remedying the situation.

When I returned I settled my young family in my parent’s home in Seremban while I was busy making frequent day trips to Kuala Lumpur to arrange for my job. I had greatly underestimated the ability of the Malaysian bureaucracy to throw hurdles on my path. As one of the few Malay surgeons then (or even now), I had expected a welcome just short of that reserved for the return of the prodigal son. Far from it!

It was after a frustrating trip to the Ministry of Health that I returned to my parent’s home only to be stunned by that tragic news of the Tun’s death. I felt as if the air had been sucked out of me. There was a sudden emptiness in me. The tribulations I had earlier with the recalcitrant civil servants at the ministry seemed so trivial.


Enduring Legacy

Tun Razak saw early the importance of investing in his people as shown by his commitment to rural development and to education. On looking back, the one sight that I took very much for granted during my youth in the 1950s was the ubiquitous building of new schools especially in rural areas. I also remember seeing the joy in the eyes of illiterate villagers who could now read the daily papers, thanks to the adult literacy classes started by Tun Razak. He also expanded Malay education hitherto available only at the primary level, right up to the university.

His education policy was not without blemish. While he modernized education in the Malay language, but others read that as a signal for them to ignore English. While he could restrain the more extremist language nationalists, his successors were more than eager to pander to them.

His modernizing education in the Malay stream encouraged many Malays to pursue their education. The Tun however was pragmatic; he sent his own children to English schools, in Britain no less. Others may charge hypocrisy, but I am certain that his children are grateful that their father had chosen for them a superior education despite the considerable political risks he would incur.

It was the Tun, together with Indonesia’s Adam Malik, who ended the totally unnecessary and utterly destructive konfrontasi that had wasted so much resources and energy from the two nations. Both leaders successfully overcame the egotistic stubbornness of their superior (the Tunku for the Tun, and Sukarno for Adam Malik) and quickly came to an agreement.

A few years later, the Tun would once again be the nation’s savior, literally. It was he, and not the hapless Tunku, who brought law and order – and then peace – following the nation’s most harrowing experience, the 1969 race riots.

Two of the Tun’s greatest legacies deserve deeper scrutiny: The New Economic Policy (NEP), spawned immediately following the 1969 riots, and the Government-Linked Companies (GLCs).

In the NEP, the Tun implicitly recognized that economic growth alone, unless accompanied by social and economic equities, would be very destabilizing and thus not sustainable. In this, he anticipated the thinking of progressive development economists by decades. Today it is the accepted wisdom.

When he formulated the NEP, the Tun did not hesitate to challenge accepted orthodoxy. Today, a generation later, we must again emulate the Tun’s boldness in challenging the status quo in revamping the successors to the NEP.

Similarly, establishing the GLCs was the Tun’s creative way to overcome the creakiness and rigidities of the civil service. It was also his recognition that the prevailing economic milieu then in Malaysia was far from being truly competitive. He used the power of government through these GLCs to open up the market and break down the de facto monopolies then in existence. The role played by his GLCs is a far cry from the resource-consuming and corruption-ridden variety in existence today.

I had never had the privilege of meeting the late Tun. Yet thirty years after his death, reminded by his many achievements and enduring legacy, I am still inspired by this great Malaysian. He was truly a Razak, the tireless servant of Allah, and the devoted and loyal servant of his beloved nation.

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