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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.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

On The Twilight Of A Just World

[Personal note: I am pleased that Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Press is releasing Kassim Ahmad's fourth collection of essays, Di Bawah Ambang Dunia Yang Adil (On The Twilight Of A Just World). I am proud and privileged that Kassim had asked me to write the Foreword.]


Di Ambang Sebuah Dunia Yang Adil
Selected Essays of Kassim Ahmad
Published by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Press, 2006


Foreword by M. Bakri Musa

(Part One of Two Parts)

In a country where the official retirement age is 55 years, and where many do indeed stop working on reaching that age, it is heartening to note that Kassim Ahmad is bucking the trend. He is still intelleDictually productive, as evidenced by this collection of his essays, Di Ambang Sebuah Dunia Yang Adil, his fourth. The title aptly describes the theme of his various commentaries.

Bucking the trend defines Kassim. I first came across his work while in secondary school nearly half a century ago. At the time Kassim had just published his The Characterization in Hikayat Hang Tuah, an academic exercise in partial fulfillment for his honors degree. It was a thesis that would later shake the Malay world out of its cultural comfort zone.
In it he took a decidedly different and necessarily negative view of the hitherto hero, Hang Tuah; instead Kassim extolled the virtues of the presumed renegade, Hang Jebat. In part, Kassim was reflecting the general anti-hero sentiment of the 1950s and 60s; the era of the Beatles, long hair, and rebelliousness. It was also the time of my youth, the phase in one’s life where challenging tradition and accepted wisdom was a given. Thus Kassim’s dismissal of our legendary hero and cultural icon resonated with me.

Kassim did more. By shining the light from and shifting our view to a different angle, the same reality can look very different. To many, that can be unnerving; to others, exhilarating. Regardless of how one reacts, one inevitably begins asking questions. To me that is a healthy intellectual development; to those in power, that is very threatening. This is especially true in a feudal society; and ours is still one steeped in its feudal traditions and strictures.
Stimulating us to ask questions is what Kassim does best; therein lays his major problem. Our culture does not look kindly upon those who would dare see or imagine things differently.

There is an axiom in science that if we cannot find the solution, then we have asked the wrong question. If we listen to the many questions stimulated by Kassim’s writings, chances are some will be the right ones, and we are then that much closer to solving our problems.

I still treasure my frayed and faded translated copy of Kassim’s thesis. A few months ago, with Kassim’s kind permission, I posted his entire thesis in its original format and language on the web (www.kassimahmad.blogspot.com). This will bring his work to within reach of the Internet-savvy younger set. It is my hope that this website will also be a repository of Kassim’s writings.

Characterization was only the beginning. Three decades later, Kassim again shook the Malay world with the release of his Hadith: Satu Penilaian (Hadith: A Re-Examination). Sadly, before I could get my copy, the authorities had banned it!

Fortunately, some sympathetic soul in America saw fit to translate that important book into English, and I was able to obtain my copy. In it, Kassim challenged the accepted wisdom that places the centrality of hadith over and above the Holy Quran. The book did not endear him to the establishment, both religious and political. Kassim was effectively ostracized and forever tagged as “anti-Hadith,” plus some other more derogatory terms.

I recently profiled Kassim Ahmad for the Sun. I was astounded by the responses from readers who are critical of him yet had not even read his books! Modern myths, like the classical ones about the purported heroism of Hang Tuah, do not die easily.

To me, Kassim’s Hadith, like his earlier Characterization, brings a much-needed fresh perspective. He again challenges accepted wisdom and forces us to think and re-examine our assumptions. To those in authority, that can be very threatening, even dangerous.

It is precisely this quality that we see in Kassim that is becoming rare in our society. We should be nurturing, not discouraging, this trait especially in our young, lest we become a nation of sheep blindly following the shepherd. We are fast becoming what my friend Din Merican calls a society of ahli bodek (sucking up to our superiors).

I am reminded of the teaching techniques of the Sufi Mullah Nasrudin. He delighted in making fun of himself to illustrate a point to his followers. One day his neighbor came to his door to demand the return of the mule the Mullah had borrowed a few weeks earlier. “I don’t have your mule,” lied Nasrudin. Unfortunately at that moment the donkey brayed, and the neighbor exclaimed, “But I can hear the animal in your barn!” Whereupon Nasrudin, looking shock, replied in feigned indignation, “Would you take the word of a mule over the word of a Mullah?”
The moral of this delightful tale is that we should have the courage to not believe even those in authority if what they say does not agree with our experience and common sense. Even a mule may the bearer of truth, and a mullah, lies. This is the recurring thread in Kassim’s essays and commentaries.

Back at my kampong, the villagers have a way of dismissing the hyperboles and grandiose promises of those in power: Tak masuk akal (It does not make sense!). What Kassim is saying is that we should have the courage to tell our leaders when what they preach tak masok akal.

(To be continued next Sunday)

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