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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, September 17, 2006

Rustm Sani's Vox Populi

Rustam Sani’s Vox Populi

One heartening development in Malaysia (and elsewhere) in the last few years is the emergence of personal blogs and the Internet news and commentary portals. This development may prove to be even more transforming socially, politically and in many other ways than the introduction of the printing press five centuries ago.

Rustam Sani’s Vox Populi (http://suara-rustam.blogspot.com) is the latest. He came on aboard a few weeks ago, and has been busy updating it regularly. His recent essays dealt with the current political leadership crisis, as well as commentaries on such topical issues as education.

A sampling of recent topics includes “The Silat Bunga of Abdullah and Mahathir,” and “Something is Rotten in the Kingdom of Higher Education.” Rustam is indeed the voice of the people.

As elsewhere, blogging is now fast becoming mainstream in Malaysia. This process is hastened considerably by the many bloggers who were once mainstream journalists, beginning first with the late MGG Pillai, and later with the likes of Kadir Jasin, (www.kadirjasin.blogspot.com) and Ahirudin Atan (www.rockybru.blogspot.com) entering the scene.

The younger pioneers like Nizam Zakaria are still there, active as ever and expanding their field of commentary. I particularly enjoy his take on the local arts scene and his excerpting his new novels.

Even more encouraging is the appearance of many blogs and Internet portals using the Malay language, as with Kassim Ahmad’s (www.kassimahmad.blogspot.com). His website also serves as a readily accessible repository of his earlier essays and commentaries, including his banned works like Hadith: A Re-Evaluation. Kassim, like Rustam, is facile in both Malay and English. Unlike many, they both stick to one or the other language with their essays; there is thankfully no jumbling mixture of rojak that I find so irritating and difficult to read.

The appearance of many blogs in Malay indicates that the Malay masses are now no longer captive to the mainstream media and government propaganda machinery (they are both the same). My favorites include Laman Marhean and Agendadaily.

While many are lamenting the current political leadership crisis in UMNO, there is already one positive consequence to this: the spawning of many new websites and blogs in the Malay language.

These enterprising and productive individuals are doing more than those bureaucrats and pseudo scholars at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and other public agencies to project our national language globally. Unlike Dewan’s glut of salaried men and women, these cyber contributors cost the government not a penny!

Introducing Rustam Sani

I first heard of Rustam Sani in 1985 when he delivered the public oration on the occasion of Kassim Ahmad receiving an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Universiti Kebangsaan. That Kassim deserved the honor was beyond question, nonetheless I found the university’s action surprising, although a very pleasing one. Kassim had then just released his harrowing account of detention under the ISA, Universiti Kedua (Second University).

Kassim is an independent thinker; it must have taken great courage for those at the university to so honor him. Rustam was then head of its Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and who nominated Kassim. I was heartened that at least there was one soul at the university brave enough to go against the grain and managed to convince his colleagues in the university senate to go along.

Rustam and I share many commonalities. We both attended English schools in our respective little towns (Tanjong Malim for him, and Kuala Pilah for me). We then went on to the “big school” for our Sixth Form, the venerable Victoria Institution for Rustam, and Malay College for me.

From the University of Malaya Rustam went on to Reading and Kent in Britain. Later as a Fullbright-Hayes scholar, he obtained double masters from Yale. Like me, he returned home, but unlike me, he stayed and put up with the system.

Ponteng (opting out) was never a consideration for him; the nationalist’s blood runs too deep in Rustam’s veins. His father, the late Ahmad Boestaman, was a firebrand nationalist and an early leader in the movement for Merdeka. Firebrand is an apt adjective, for Boestaman was active in API (lit. fire), the acronym for Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (The Committed Youth Movement).

Boestaman later founded the socialist Parti Rakyat Malaysia and served in Parliament in the early 1960s. It was tribute to the way things were then that young Rustam did not suffer the consequences of having a father active in opposition politics. How different things are today!

Tribulations of A Social Scientist

Life as a social scientist in Malaysia must be terribly trying, both professionally and personally. Your field of enquiry touches on so many “sensitive issues,” at least sensitive to the establishment. You cannot follow your intellectual interests, unless the authorities grant you permission. That is quite apart from the funding issue.

When you have someone like Rustam who dares to think differently, life could be even more difficult, on as well as off campus. Rustam was lucky to have been spared the harsh fate meted out to Kassim Ahmad, Syed Hussin Ali, and others. Perhaps Allah in His Infinite Mercy and Wisdom decided that the Boestaman family had suffered enough, and thus spared Rustam the fate endured by his father. The British detained Ahmad Boestaman for eight years for his leftist activities during the Emergency. Just to show that Malaysian leaders did learn a thing or two from their British masters, the Tunku later jailed Ahmad Boestaman for four years under the ISA in 1963. He became the first sitting Member of Parliament to be so detained. That is a mark of distinction and honor in my book, not a blemish.

On campus, unless you toe the official line you would definitely be sidelined no matter how productive you are. Rustam was one productive academic; I came across his writings many times when researching for my books. Unfortunately, on Malaysian campuses intellectual productivity is not valued. To advance, suffice that you are an enthusiastic cheerleader for the authorities.

Far from being satisfied as a detached scholar-analyst, Rustam was actively engaged as a political practitioner and activist with Parti Rakyat. He walks the talk; he practices what he preaches.

Off campus, the same oppressive atmosphere prevails. The pages of the mainstream publications and airtime of radio and television are the exclusive preserve of unabashed supporters of the status quo. To these pundits, their sultans would always be donning a samping sutra (silk cummerbund) even when they are wrapped in bark loincloth. Once that sultan is out of power, these cheerleaders would, without skipping a beat, go on praising the next one and unhesitatingly damning the old one. Witness the current vulgar vilification of Mahathir by his once ardent supporters.

The mainstream media have lost their precious credibility, as well as balance and objectivity! In the end it is their readers (and thus the nation) who are not being well served. It is not a surprise that the blossoming of the Internet news portals and blogosphere coincides with (or perhaps the cause of) the decline of the mainstream media.

When Gutenberg introduced his printing press five centuries ago, he did more than simply made reading materials readily available for the masses. He emancipated them, freeing them from the tight controls of the clergy and ruling class who then had exclusive access to written works. They were the exclusive arbiter and interpreter on matters religious and others. The masses need only follow them meekly, as a flock of sheep would their shepherd.

The ready availability of the printing press upended all that. The resulting mass literacy made possible the reformation, and an end to the Medieval Age.

The Internet, by democratizing news, information, and commentaries, would have a similar if not far greater transforming effect. Rustam Sani’s Vox Populi (Voice of the People), and others like his, would ensure that we would not regress.


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