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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, June 04, 2006

Neglecting Our Rich Heritage

Neglecting Our Rich Heritage


When diving off the Trengganu coast a few years back, I was saddened to see our beautiful coral reefs destroyed by careless anchoring and reckless pollution. While this devastation of our reefs and other invaluable national heritage is obvious, the non-recording of our history is equally a loss that is both irretrievable and immeasurable.

I felt this deeply when Tun Ismail Ali died a few years ago. I did not know this distinguished Malaysian except that he was the first Malay Queen’s scholar, an eminent banker, and a dedicated public servant. He gave much to the nation, but we hardly knew him, except through few mushy and ineloquent obituaries. The man did not leave his memoirs, and our historians and intellectuals have not deemed his considerable contributions merit proper recognition.


The Tunku’s Recollections

Many years ago I read Looking Back, a collection of essays by our first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. Here was a leader who brought our nation to independence peacefully, through shrewd negotiations and skillful diplomacy. It was an achievement sufficiently rare and unique; there were no lives lost through armed confrontations or glorified wars of independence. A truly grateful nation duly anointed him Bapak Malaysia (Father of Malaysia).

A few years later following the 1969 race riot, the nation quickly soured on him. He was literally hounded out of office, and then ignominiously ignored. In Looking Back, the old man bitterly lamented that even the country’s history books did not mention his name in retracing the nation’s struggle for independence. He ventured whether the many honors heaped upon him earlier had not been a cruel joke.

When the Tunku died, a significant part of our history went with him, never to be recovered. We will never know, for example, what prompted him to accept the invitation to head UMNO when its first leader, Onn Jaafar, sulked and abandoned it. Or how were the British leaders Anthony Eden and Harold McMillan in the pivotal negotiations for independence?

We now know how Lee Kuan Yew feels about Tunku, but what was Tunku’s take on Lee? Tunku must have intuitively sensed something about Lee to decide that Malaysia was better off without him. What went through Tunku’s mind when his beloved nation went on wild rampages that May of 1969? What were his dreams for the nation? These and a host of other questions will forever remain unanswered.

Tunku did leave some written records of his reflections. On his retirement, The Star was kind enough to hire him as a columnist. His columns were indeed very revealing. As expected, most were self-serving. Perhaps out of respect for the man or simply that the paper’s editorial standards were non-existent, the essays were rambling and lacked discipline. Nonetheless they were useful historical documents.

As for the Tunku’s voluminous personal papers, their whereabouts are not known. Our National Archives, universities, and other official custodians are curiously not interested in finding out, much less try to acquire them.


Ignoring Other Luminaries

Tun Ghaffar, another prominent player, died recently. Again, no one sought to document his views when he was alive, apart from a few trashy books.

We are still fortunate to have a few of the original participants in the birth of our nation still alive. Khir Johari is one. He was Tunku’s stalwarts and served in his first cabinet. Our historians and journalists should seize this opportunity while we still have him. I am no fan of his, but he was a participant in many of the seminal events in our nation’s history.

I remember Khir Johari as Minister of Education visiting my school in the 1950s. Even then I was unimpressed with him. Compared to my Oxford-trained headmaster, Khir was clearly out of the league. I shuddered to think that he was in charge of such an important portfolio. But he was, and we should record his impressions.

It is unfortunate that few of our leaders saw fit to write and document their experiences. Even if they were too busy, they should have at least authorized someone to write their biographies, or simply hire talented “ghost writers.”

The distinguished legal scholar and public servant Ahmad Ibrahim too died a few years ago. Although he had written extensively on scholarly legal issues, he did not see fit to pen his autobiography. The same could be said of Tun Suffian, another legal luminary.

The chronicles of these giants would inspire the younger set. At the very least, such accounts would help counter the ugly stereotype of Malay leadership and talent so shamelessly demonstrated by those currently in UMNO and PAS.

In this regard, Tun Mahathir is a refreshing departure. Not only has he written many books, he is now busy compiling his memoirs. Mahathir is also the rare leader who writes his own speeches and books; he prides in his own authorship. His style is also uniquely his: blunt and to the point.

Our hot humid climate is not kind to documents and personal papers. They must be carefully and professionally handled to maintain their physical integrity. Papers, photographs and other documents can rot quickly in our climate, be eaten by moths, or be bleached by the bright light. There are immense historical, esthetic and other values to these original artifacts. I would have loved to see the original scores of P. Ramlee’s many compositions.

Just as important to maintaining the documents’ physical integrity is respecting their confidentiality and owners’ wishes. The late Tun Ismail Abdul Rahman, a long time member of the Tunku’s cabinet, left his papers to an institution in Singapore. Apparently he did not trust Malaysian institutions to execute his instructions.

Many of these distinguished personalities have well educated children. It is surprising that few of them feel compelled to record their impressions of or pay tribute to their famous fathers and grandfathers. I would have loved to read what Hishamuddin remembers of his famous father and grandfather, both great figures in our history. I am of course assuming that Hishamuddin can write.

The widows of Tun Razak and Hussein Onn are still alive. More than any other person, they have spent more time with their illustrious husbands than anyone else. These women are valuable resources; they are our national heritage in their own right. Yet, like the hitherto beautiful corral reefs off Pulau Perhentian, these two dignified daughters of Malaysia remain ignored and not valued.

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