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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, July 30, 2006

Melayu Baru Versus Melayu Barua

Melayu Baru Versus Melayu Barua

There is very little display of civility among Malay leaders, reflecting their lack of class and social finesse. Embarrassing though that might be, it does not concern me. Far more consequential is that such boorish behaviors set the tone for their followers.

The recent tear gas incident involving former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir is one such consequence. Expect more, and even much more ugly confrontations if the present trend continues.

When Tunku Abdul Rahman was Prime Minister, he used to have social gatherings outside of official functions so leaders and their spouses could get together and know each other better at the personal level. Such interactions act as a useful and necessary social lubricant. The goodwill generated would spill over to their official and other spheres.

It was through such personal social encounters that enabled the likes of the late Datuk Asri and Tan Chee Kon to be effective opposition leaders and yet they maintained their warm personal relationships with the Tunku and other government leaders. Such genuine expressions of cordiality also rubbed off on their followers and subordinates.

The Tunku was widely known for his fondness of what would be politely termed as “un-Islamic” habits, yet no one ever insulted him by calling him a kafir. If they did, the Tunku would have replied with his characteristic humility, “Those are my weaknesses!” End of story!

Even if some of the more boisterous members were to resort to such name calling, rest assured that their leaders would have made known their disapproval. Such actions would have been enough to restrain the more exuberant followers.

Elegant Silence Encourages Boorishness

Today, these leaders would prefer to remain quiet to the excesses and thuggish behaviors of their boorish supporters. Such “elegant silence” only feeds on their followers’ perception of approval. Worse, some leaders enthusiastically egg on their followers to engage in those uncivilized deeds.

When Mahathir was Prime Minister, supposedly pious leaders of PAS would regularly assail him with contemptuous and uncharacteristically un-Islamic epithets. Their followers were more than eager to pick up the cue. Yet Mahathir’s personal piety far exceeds those of his predecessors; the man does not even smoke!

At the recent UMNO’s Diamond Jubilee celebration in Johor Baru, its two leading personalities – Abdullah Badawi and Tun Mahathir – were noted for their coolness towards each other. They would not even be photographed together for such a historic occasion despite being prompted by their host, the Sultan of Johore. Such gross lack of graciousness is not lost on their followers. To think that they both belong to the same party! Imagine had they been from opposing parties. It is from such a social and cultural milieu that the recent tear-gas incident in Kota Baru emerges.

Contrast that to the socio-political scene in America. President Bush, Sr., and Bill Clinton were once bitter political rivals. Yet that did not stop them from coming together with their genuine display of warmth and affection to head the highly successful Katrina and Tsunami Relief Funds. President Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill used to end their day of contentious political negotiations by sharing cigars and their favorite Irish whisky. And they were from opposing political parties! As Reagan characteristically said, politics ended at 5 PM. To be sure, such displays of civility are today fast eroding in Washington, D.C.

Younger Leaders Worse

The lamentable part is that the younger leaders are no better; in fact they are worse. Consider this. UMNO Youth leaders see fit to have an annual golf game with their counterparts in Singapore’s People Action Party. That is laudable. I remember not too long ago when leaders of UMNO and PAP were demonizing each other, with UMNO folks openly accusing PAP leaders for being racists and anti-Malay. The end result of such ugly displays was the heightening of racial tensions, culminating in the fracturing of Malaysia and the expulsion of Singapore.

While UMNO Youth leaders may see fit to engage socially their hitherto enemy south of the causeway, they have yet to extend similar goodwill gestures to the Youth Wing of their Barisan coalition partners. As for having a kenduri or friendly sepak tekraw games with their counterparts in PAS or Keadilan, that would be beyond their collective comprehension.

Prime Minister Abdullah and PAS leader Datuk Nik Aziz are both widely regarded as ulama. Nik Aziz still regularly delivers his Friday khutba. As for Abdullah, soon after taking office he was prominently photographed piously leading his Muslim ministers in a congregational prayer: the Prime Minister as Grand Imam! His handlers were obviously attempting to project the parallel image of the Rightly Guided Caliphs during the glorious days of Islam when the political and spiritual leadership were one.

Despite such very public displays of religiosity by the two leaders, I cannot imagine either of them listening to the other’s sermon, or for both to be seen praying together. So much for the charity of spirit that is so highly valued in Islam!

Things have not always been this way. During colonial times, Malaysian society was even more segregated racially than today. There were minimal social and other interactions between the average Malaysians from the various communities. Yet, as these elite leaders have bonded well through having attended the same schools and universities, their personal examples of genuine friendship and respect for each other rubbed off on their followers in the respective communities.

These leaders’ personal chemistry mix helped greatly when they were involved in intense and contentious negotiations leading up to independence. Leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tan Cheng Lock and Sambanthan were personally fond of each other. Their followers, seeing the pattern set by their leaders, followed suit. It was this promise of unity as demonstrated well by these leaders that convinced the British to grant Malaysia (or Malaya as it was then) her independence.

Nature’s Gentleman No More

The colonials used to refer to Malays as “nature’s gentlemen,” a term of endearment as well as condescension. Modern Malay leaders took umbrage at such a designation. We were subsequently urged by our leaders to undertake a mental revolution of sorts, and to discard our “gentleman” image. Our leaders exhorted us to be more assertive, or in the words of then Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam, to be more kurang ajar (lit. not adequately tutored; fig. uncouth).

During my youth, to be so labeled was the height of insult both to yourself and your parents. Musa Hitam would have preferred us to take it as a compliment. Such perversion of values!

In their obsession in creating the assertive “New Malay,” these leaders have created a new monster; their Melayu Baru (New Malay) has morphed into Melayu Barua (Malay rascal). These newly revolutionized “New Malays” now proudly proclaim that they have acquired an “A!”

These Melayu Barua have perverted our traditional values. No hallowed institution or esteemed ritual escapes their wrath of disapproval. The goodwill practice of “Open House” during festive seasons too has come under their attack. These are now deemed “un-Islamic.”

Meanwhile those Melayu Barua in the mainstream media view such “Open House” events as surrogate straw polls of a leader’s popularity. Through their despicable commentaries which they unabashedly publish in their rags, they compare the waiting lines and crowds at the various open houses, giving their uncalled for pretentious political predictions from such social events. They cannot write on anything substantive, so they resort to pontificating on trivialities.

Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur was criticized recently for spending lavishly in teaching these Melayu Baru in the civil service some social graces. Someone ought to tell them that “class” means more than being able to fasten your cumberbund and tie your bow tie properly, or learning how to use those salad forks. You can still have class attired in your traditional Baju Melayu and eating with your fingers. Besides, it would be tricky to use those forks on your petai and jering!

It would take more than sending these Melayu Baru leaders through finishing school to instill class in them. If they haven’t got it by now, they are unlikely ever to acquire it. Blame not their followers when they follow their leaders’ pattern.


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