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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.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Obsession with Trivia

Obsession with Trivia Our Major Obstacle

Malaysiakini.com March 8, 2007

Editorial lead: All one could achieve by endless chanting on prayer beads is to put everyone to slumber. God knows, our leaders are already doing enough of that!

It is a sure sign that a society is on the decline when it is consumed with trivia. You would not know of the decline of the Roman Empire from the attendance at the Coliseum during the dying days of Imperial Rome.

Today, Muslim societies in general and Malays in particular are obsessed with inconsequential issues. There is much discussion on the wearing of chastity belt and the tudung to protect the purity of our women. In the same vein, the state of Kelantan mandates separate checkout lines for men and women at the supermarket, and a stadium exclusively for women.

This obsession intensifies under Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. He is intent on aping the great Caliphs of yore, hence pictures of him as Imam leading his ministers in prayer. Last year his Angkasa (Malaysian Space Agency) convened an academic conference on “Islam and Life in Space.” Among the major concerns were on performing prayers in and the direction of Qiblat from outer space! I thought they would instead marvel at the miracle of humans in outer space, and the scientific endeavors that made it possible.

One UKM engineer ingeniously designed software to determine the direction of Qiblat from outer space. His paper was the most widely quoted in the lay press, locally and abroad. I am sure he has a huge potential market for his invention. At last count, there was only one Muslim astronaut, and Malaysia hopes to triple that number soon.

The only astronomical aspect to that venture (of sending Malaysians into space) is the cost. We are led to believe that the whole thing is gratis, the benevolence of the Russians after we paid a highly inflated price for their outdated military jets.

Meanwhile right here on earth, there is an ongoing raging controversy on the “right” direction of Qiblat. Muslims in Alaska could pray facing southeast if using the Mercator projection of wall maps as their guide, or northwest, that being the most direct path as per the satellite image of Earth. At Mecca’s antipodal point somewhere in French Polynesia, Muslims could face either northeast or northwest and still face Mecca.

Many a temper had been lost in discourses to resolve this intrinsically unsolvable dilemma, not to mention the acres of forests sacrificed to publishing the ensuing treatises. Never mind the Prophet s.a.w. had once, upon revelation, changed the direction of Qiblat. The intellectuality of such debates would be akin to arguing about how many angels would fit on the head of a pin. In terms of utility, or ability to effect change, it would be like discussing the weather. It gets us nowhere.

No Shortage of Serious Problems

Yet there is no shortage of serious problems facing the ummah today. In Malaysia, there are the daily headlines of incest, spousal and child abuse, corruption, breach of trust among leaders, and underdevelopment of our human capital as evidenced by high illiteracy and poverty rates. In the cradle of Islamic civilization, the Sunnis and Shiites are hell bent on slaughtering each other, with the rest of the Muslim world in particular the OIC chaired by our own Abdullah Badawi, remaining strangely detached.

A few years ago the United Nations commissioned a study on the state of human development in the Arab world. Among its shocking findings is this: Spain produced more books in one year than the entire Arab world for the past 100 years! Another, the Arabs’ contribution to the world’s economy is under five percent, and overwhelmingly related to their oil at that. Without that accidental bounty of nature, their contribution would be zilch.

If I were to do a similar study on Malays, the results would be equally disturbing. We constitute half of the population of Malaysia, but our contribution to the economy, intellectual, scientific and artistic life does not match our numbers. On the contrary, we are over represented in the dysfunctional category (drug addictions, HIV infections, and the Mat Rempits and Mat Skodengs as well as the unemployed).

I am ashamed of this but I point it out merely to note that there is no shortage of challenges that demand to be solved. Issues like the direction of Qiblat and wearing of tudong should not clutter our radar screen.

Malay leaders, intellectuals and pundits have no clue on solving these pressing issues; hence their preoccupations with chastity belts and spouting pieties. When they are not so doing, they are content with recalling the glorious days of Andalusia and the supposedly golden era of the Malacca sultanate.

Changing Mindsets

We lack the necessary humility to learn from others; we already know it all. Sombong, as we say back in my old village. We regard ourselves as “special,” content with our privileges. Yet our problems are neither unique nor insolvable; others have successfully overcome them. We could too, if only we are willing to learn from them.

If we look east, there are the Koreans who despite once being brutally colonized by the Japanese are now besting them. If we look west, there are the Irish, who like us were once colonized by the British. Despite its small population, Ireland is today a force within the EU.

Our mindset to solving problems must change. If I were caught in a house during a rainstorm and the roof was leaking, it would not do me any good to keep chanting on my prayer bead, “The room is dry! The room is dry!” However, if I were to go out and tie a tarp over the roof, it would definitely be more effective. Yes, I could chant and sing while doing so to make the chore more fun. Looking at it from the opposite perspective, our Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. said it best, “First tie your camel, then pray it does not stray!”

In facing the problems of our ummah, our leaders are content with chanting and praying but not in exerting themselves in tying a tarp over the roof or securing the camel.

Instead of being obsessed with the tudong and chastity belt, we should focus on education and economic development. Those are the surest ways of uplifting our people, the proven way out of poverty. Once we are no longer mired in it, we are more likely to be on the straight path. As Hamka so wisely noted, “Kemiskinan medukoki kefukuran!” (Poverty invites impiety). There is little piety or virtue in poverty-stricken Indonesia. It is not a surprise that incest as well as child and spousal abuse are highest in the poorest states of Malaysia.

Not just any education. If we continue with our present system that emphasizes reverence for precedence and mindless memorization, that would only produce zealots who think that killing and destroying would secure for them a place in heaven, with a generous supply of virgins thrown in. Our education should emphasize the sciences as well as quantitative and language skills. Our teachers should encourage critical thinking, not meek acceptance and blind obedience.

If we continue with the present system heavy on revealed knowledge and obedience to authority, then we should not be surprised if our people could only chant rather than tie a tarp over our roof, or forever praying to find their lost camel as they have not learned to tie it properly.

As for economic development, we should emulate our prophet by engaging in its activities. Before anointed prophet, he was a highly successful trader, engaging in the most elemental form of economic activity. The advanced societies achieved their status through encouraging trade and entrepreneurial activities among their citizens.

If our society aspires to join their ranks, then we too should encourage similar activities among our citizens. Our Quran commands us to go forth and seek a livelihood after our prayers; we are not to confine ourselves in our mosques as monks in their monasteries.

Our heroes should be the satay sellers and other entrepreneurs big and small who in serving their fellow men are also serving Allah, and earning an honest living at the same time. Paraphrasing the wisdom of our prophet, it is better to be giving a paycheck than to receiving one, meaning, better to be an entrepreneur than a salary man.

We have outdone ourselves in rent seeking behaviors and extracting bounty from state welfarism. As for salary man, look at our civil service, overwhelmingly Malay.

Success and excellence are not achievable by everyone, only those willing to work hard and strive for them. As for those content only with endlessly praising the wisdom of such endeavors, their fate will not change. All they would achieve by their endless chanting on prayer beads is to put everyone – leaders and followers alike – to slumber. God knows, our leaders are already doing enough of that!

We should heed the command of our Quran, “Verily, never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change it themselves!” (Surah 13:11 – approximate translation.)

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