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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.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #52

Chapter 8: Culture Counts (Cont’d)


Recent Malay Cultural Transformations

Societies vary in their receptiveness to change and new ideas. Some adapt easily, others more resistant. Culture plays a major role. Without inferring any value judgment, the adjective most associated with the first is progressive; the second, conservative.

There is reluctance to attribute the fate of society to culture. We risk using culture as an excuse for everything and being trapped by cultural determinism. The other temptation would be to rank cultures, with some being superior and others, by definition, inferior. Of course the successful cultures would have the bragging rights. Today, Western culture is dominant, and not surprisingly Westerners feel compelled to lecture the rest of the world on the superiority of their values and norms. A few centuries earlier it was the Chinese who felt that they had nothing to learn from the barbarians beyond.

Lest we forget, when Europe was still stuck in the Dark Ages, Muslim physicians and astronomers were pondering and exploring the world within and beyond. I do not know whether those Muslim scholars and philosophers were consumed with smugly lecturing the rest of the world on the supposed superiority of Muslim values, but Europe eagerly learned from them.

When you have to tell the world how superior your values or cultures are, chances are they are anything but. While those in the West today are busy trumpeting the supposed superiority of Western values, they conveniently forget the debt the West owes to earlier civilizations.

When discussing the role of culture in Malaysia, an immediate problem crops up. With its many cultures, we have to define carefully the population sub-group. Another mistake would be to automatically ascribe the cultural values and traits of a particular group to its racial heritage.

Case in point is the common mistake to ascribe the success of overseas Chinese in Malaysia and elsewhere to the supposedly superior Confucian values. Were that to be the case, one would expect China to be a super power and have something to teach the world. Instead China is only now emerging from its shell. In truth, Malaysian Chinese, like other immigrants to Malaysia and elsewhere, are a self-selected group. Their ancestors had a decidedly different worldview, that is, their fate lies in their own hands and not with the local warlords or the mighty emperor in the distant capital. Those early Chinese coolies in Malaysia had more in common with the Irish and Italian immigrants to America than with their kin they left behind on the mainland.

To return to my earlier story, those early Chinese who left their homeland shared the same traits as farmer Ahmad, while those they left behind were like farmer Bakar. It is those values—their willingness to try something new, and the belief that their future lies in their on hands and not with some remote power elsewhere—which they inculcate in their children that account for their success. That is their cultural contribution, not some mysterious Confucian or biological trait. To be sure, the proportion of Chinese who left China—the Ahmads—was tiny, the vast majority were the Bakars who chose to remain on the mainland.

The environmental stimulus that precipitated the coolies’ personal and subsequent cultural transformation was the appalling conditions in their homeland, for the Irish, the potato famine. It is no more rational to ascribe the success of the Kennedys and other Irish Americans to their “superior” Gaelic heritage than it is to ascribe “superior” Confucian values to explain the success of overseas Chinese. Britain’s colonization of Malaysia was transforming for Malays, triggering our own cultural mutation. Colonialism ended slavery and brought modern education. The colonialists also brought something else. They saw in feudal Malay culture a reflection of their old medieval Britain with its lords and nobles. The Brits turned Malay society into a jungle version of medieval England. Malay nobles and sultans became even more entrenched and enamored with their titles and palaces. Malay masses further ingrained in themselves that their fate depended not on their wits rather on ingratiating themselves to their lord and sultans.

That trait persists today. Witness the toadying comments by intellectuals, ministers, and editors on the Prime Minister and leaders of the day. To them, their Prime Minister and sultans are always donned in samping sutra (silk cummerbund), never in sarong pelekat (cotton wraparound) even when they are covered in bark loincloth.

The most pressing issue Tunku Abdul Rahman faced as Prime Minister was to come up with a list of appropriate civil titles and honors! The old man idled his time researching ancient Malay literature to find just the right titles. He agonized over the details of attire and finery these new latter-day jungle knights and nobles should wear. Today, when leaders elsewhere are busy preparing their county for the increasingly competitive world, Malaysians are busy awarding each other these elaborate feudal honorifics and admiring themselves in their intricate court attire.

There was yet another transforming moment for Malays under the British, when they overreached to make Malaysia (or Malaya, as it was then called) a dominion. This time they grossly underestimated the political shrewdness of Malays. Up till then the British viewed Malays as an apathetic lot politically, not in the least interested in running their country. They left that to the British and their proxies, the sultans and nobilities. Malays, the Brits concluded, were content with carefree living in their villages under the gentle swaying fronds of their favorite coconut tree. The sultans and nobles too were a malleable bunch, easily swayed by the British. Their price was also modest: silly medieval titles like the knighthood of some ancient English order and a piddling pension. That was enough to persuade them to give up their sovereignty. The British, having understood the Malay psyche very well, played on the pride of the sultans.

When the Malay masses found out that their sultans were being hoodwinked or more correctly, cheaply bought, they reacted. With stunning effectiveness, and led by capable and farsighted leaders like the late Datuk Onn, Malays rebelled and successfully derailed that Malayan Union plan. The British knew much about Malay culture and psyche, and wisely reminded themselves that the word amok is afterall a Malay word. The surprise was how easily the mighty British capitulated to the demands of the newly awakened Malay masses.

A byproduct of that transforming event was that Malays became irretrievably hooked on politics, the refined form as well as the less savory variety. Who would have predicted these brown-skinned natives whom the Brits condescendingly referred to as “nature’s gentlemen” would become political rebel rousers and successfully take on the powerful colonialists? Less than a generation later, Malays have become so obsessed with politics that they cannot get away from it. Today, Malays who are successful in fields other than politics and could have made a significant contribution in their chosen profession, willingly give that up to dabble in silly politics.

A friend of mine who in the 1980s headed one of the biggest private medical clinics in the country then gave all that up in chasing his political dream. Unfortunately, after backing the wrong horse in a critical race, he found himself sidelined. As for his former clinics, well, what could have been the promising nucleus for a Malaysian Mayo Clinic, complete with its own hospital and possibly medical and nursing schools, were now in tatters. In chasing his political ambition, he forgot that he could have achieved an even bigger dream had he held on to his profession. To balance my account, I too rooted for him. I saw in him another brilliant young doctor, perhaps someone to eventually replace the other charismatic one who was then leading the country.

Politics still devour many promising young Malays. I now look anxiously at another successful Malay professional, who though still in his forties successfully created Malaysia’s largest legal firm, with branches abroad. His is the only one to have such a presence. Despite that, this young man, like so many other promising Malay professionals and businessmen, is being seduced by politics. Alas his political foray too does not look promising. Another, a neurosurgeon no less, a handful of Malays to be so qualified, dabbled in opposition politics and was soundly routed.

These instances serve to reaffirm the assertion that cultural values can indeed be changed, often suddenly and in very transforming manner.

Next: Economic Culture

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