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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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, July 23, 2006

The False Premise and Promise of Ketuanan Melayu

Malaysiakini.com July 5, 2006

The False Premise and Promise of Ketuanan Melayu

Editorial lead: The Malays have never learned or refused to learn what it would take to be Tuan. In this competitive world you work to be one; you must work to be one.

Malay leaders are again selling to their followers a bill of goods with the doctrine of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Hegemony). These leaders delude themselves and the masses into thinking that we Malays have been anointed “Tuan” (master) of Malaysia, with all the implied glories and privileges.

Both the premise and promise of Ketuanan Melayu are false. The sooner Malays grasp this stark reality, the better it is for us and for all Malaysians, as well as for the nation. In this competitive world you work to be a Tuan; you must earn it! In feudal societies, whether you are fated to be master or servant is determined at birth by your heritage. Malaysia has long passed that stage though many are still entrapped in the feudal mindset.

Yes, our sultans are born to be so. Perhaps that is where we acquire the belief that we too could be born Tuan purely based on our heritage.. False! Nowhere is it so written. Our sultans could easily be reduced to the status of the Sultan of Sulu, as has happened during the deprivation of World War II. It did not take long for our rajas to behave as ordinary mortals then, joining their fellow villagers in scrounging for food. There was nothing regal about your sultanah wrapped in a wet, cheap sarong panning for fish in the rivers, like all the other poor villagers.

If that could happen to our sultans in the past, it could happen again. And if it could happen to our sultans, it could happen to ordinary rakyats. The only sure path to spare us from such a fate is to ensure that we are competitive and can contribute our share.

De jure Tuan versus de facto Tuan

In our obsession to be Tuan we have never learned or refused to learn what it would take to be one. We convinced ourselves that we are Tuans simply through the operation of the law, a social contract agreed upon by our earlier leaders, or through the will of Allah.

While Malays fantasize being de jure (by operation of law) Tuan, non-Malays, through their hard work, have become de facto (as a matter of fact) Tuans in Malaysia. Outside of government offices, this is the harsh reality.

Through Ketuanan Melayu Malays are led to believe that the world would be at our beck and call. We use the constitution to confidently decree that our culture, language, and norms be supreme. When the world ignores our command, we become even shriller in impressing upon them our status as Tuan.

Increasingly, it is not just the greater world beyond that is ignoring us; our own little world is contemptuous of our status. Malay may be the national language, but Minister of Education Hishamuddin is inundated with applications from Malaysians wishing to enroll their children in international schools where the language is other than Malay. Hishamudin of course sends his daughter abroad. Rest assured they do not teach Malay there.

Malaysians may speak Malay but it is the debased (rojak) version. That is a reflection of utter contempt for the language, and not just by non-Malays. Malay may be the language of the land, but when I visit Malaysia I have difficulty finding books in Malay. Malay media capture only a tiny portion of the advertising dollar, again a reflection of the market’s valuation of the language. As for Malay schools, now elevated as “national schools,” even Malays are abandoning them.

More destructively, this collective delusion in our destiny to be Tuan encourages a variety of non-productive behaviors. We have leaders content only with endless speech making rather than bucking down to hard work; university vice chancellors who debase their titles with their singular lack of scholarly contributions; and civil servants who act as mini sultans (or Little Napoleons, in the Prime Minister’s words) of their departments. Executives of GLCs engage in nothing more than rent seeking behaviors, despite their hallowed titles as Chairman, CEO, and “Investment Banker.”

Such are the meaningless consequences of the empty promises of Ketuanan Melayu. It is a cruel hoax perpetrated upon our people by our very own leaders.

Be Competitive in Order to be Tuan

Ketuanan Melayu is premised upon false foundations. Tanah Melayu (Land of the Malays) or not, Malays are not ordained to be Tuan, in our own land or elsewhere. On the other hand, if Malays were competitive, rest assured that we would then be Tuans even in lands other than Tanah Melayu.

In my forthcoming book, Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I outlined a strategy for enhancing Malaysian, in particular Malay, competitiveness by focusing on four basic elements: leadership, people, culture, and geography. They make up my “Diamond of Development,” with each element forming one angle of the diamond. Each element is being influenced by and in turn influences the other three. When all four are favorable, they create a virtuous cycle, with each synergistically reinforcing the other three. Conversely when all elements are negative, there would be a rapid downward spiral.

Good citizens would insist on good leadership; and good leaders in turn invest in their people. Saddam Hussein would never have a chance being elected dogcatcher in America, and his sadism in turn has rubbed off on the Iraqis people.
Sophisticated leaders and citizens in turn would demand effective institutions (an element of culture). With good leadership and institutions, former poor fishing villages could become exclusive tourist resorts giving work to local citizens and boosting the nation’s economy, as we seen with Cancun, Mexico. With corrupt leaders and institutions, even sand could be made scarce in Saudi Arabia. Malaysia has over 100 inches of rain annually but its taps frequently run dry. Las Vegas, in the desert, sports swimming pools and fountains. Again, leadership and institutions make the difference.

Enhancing the quality of our people (human capital) require that they be healthy and be educated and trained. Health has less to do with expenditures on hospitals, doctors and modern medicine and more on such civil engineering marvels as central sewer and water treatment plants, affordable housing, and even availability of electricity (through better food refrigeration). Even education leads to better health, but a good education system is necessary for economic development. That the present system is wanting is obvious.

All these would be for naught if Malaysians were in conflict with one another. For any society, more so if it is a plural one, peace and harmony is a prerequisite for economic development. It is for this reason that I am alarmed at the increasing fragmentation of Malaysians and the deepening polarization among Malays.

The special privileges of the NEP should be used to enhance the competitiveness of Bumiputras, not to narcotize us with the delusion of Ketuanan Melayu. Before his “elegant silence,” Prime Minister Abdullah spoke bravely of the “The New Malay Dilemma,” of weaning Malays of the “special privilege” crutches. Characteristically, he recoiled at the first hint of resistance; he could not handle the keris-brandishing UMNO Youth leaders intent on having their regular special privileges “fix.”

We delude only ourselves if we think we can use the constitution, heritage, or some imagined social contract to make us Tuan. Malays have to disabuse ourselves of the false premise and promise of Ketuanan Melayu.


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