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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, August 10, 2008

The Sarong Index of Political Corruption

M. Bakri Musa


The eminent economist Ungku Aziz, whose insight on rural poverty remains unmatched, once proposed the “sarong index” as a measure of rural Malay poverty. You count the number of sarongs in a household and divide that by the number of dwellers (excepting infants, who presumably would still be in their diapers).

The lower that number the greater is the poverty, with an index of less than one (more people than sarong) signifying extreme poverty. Perhaps that explains why the poor have large families; they are, in the language of my old kampong, sharing the same sarong too often!

With politicians now routinely giving out sarong pelakat to Malay voters during elections, I suggest a new “sarong index,” this time as a measure of political corruption. Divide the number of sarongs distributed by the number of Malay voters. The higher the number, the more corrupt the politician, and the more competitive the constituency or the position sought.

My index is superior in that it simultaneously measures two variables: the degree of political corruption and how keenly a position is being contested.

Like Ungku Aziz’s old index, mine too could be refined by, for example, noting the material of the sarong. If it is only the cotton Madras variety, you could conclude that the corruption is low, or that the election is only for a branch and not a national position.

I imagine Abdullah Badawi’s team is now aggressively handing out the more expensive and finely-embroidered Kelantan sutra in anticipation of defending his party’s presidency in the upcoming UMNO elections!

Bless those folks of Permatang Pauh, for they, at least the Muslim voters, will now be inundated with gifts of sarongs given out by generous UMNO operatives intent on denting Anwar Ibrahim’s assured victory in the upcoming by-election.

It may be argued that my index is so, well, 1960s or kampong-like. In these days you would need an extended stay at a plush hotel in the capital city or even a brief overseas trip to carry any weight. Rest assured that my sarong index would still apply in those circumstances, albeit with some modifications.

For in addition to the number of sarongs and type of material, the manner by which the sarong is presented would also matter. For the ordinary villager, simply leaving the sarong in its original clear plastic wrapping would be acceptable. For more important or exceptionally influential clients, that would not suffice. Not only would you need a better material like the sarong sutra, but you would also need to wrap it around something attractive, like a voluptuous body a la the Mongolian model, with the carrier included as part of the gift! And if your target has shall we say a more avant garde taste, you would have to wrap the sarong around a Saiful!

A note of caution for those ill informed on matters of chemistry: biological stains on fabric, unwashed, last a long time, as President Clinton so woefully found out.

In traditional Malay culture, the gift of a sarong is the most personal and thoughtful, bestowed only on special occasions. For a youngster, it would be the traditional gift at the time of circumcision and on khatam, the completion of reciting the Quran, both seminal events in a young Malay’s life. The sarong is also a wonderful wedding gift.

The sarong has both religious and traditional significance. The more embroidered and expensive sutra is worn at weddings and to adorn the pelamin (wedding dais). The simple cotton sarong is the apparel for our daily prayers. Imagine for your prayers wearing the sarong given to you with the intent to corrupt!

The gift is very personal for when donning the sarong one would immediately be reminded of the generosity of the giver as well as the unique occasion on which it was given. I still have the samping sutras given to me by my friends and family decades ago. On the special occasions like Hari Raya and wedding receptions when I would don it, it would inevitably rekindle favorite memories of those dear friends and family members, as well as the warm occasions when I received those gifts. Such is the meaning of the gift of a sarong.

I also remember fondly the sarongs given to me by my grateful patients, not so much for the gift as for the emotions and sense of gratitude expressed with the giving. On those occasions I would feel a certain kinship with the village dukuns (medicine man), for whom the gift of a sarong from their cliental is the tradition.

It saddens me that such a pristine part of our culture is today debased. Far from being the symbol of affection and generosity, as I know it, the sarong is now part of and the emblem of corruption.

Earlier we saw the obscenity of our very symbol of honor and nobility, the keris, being publicly degraded by those who would claim to be our future leaders. What saddened me were not the thuggish behaviors of these young pseudo leaders rather that they were wildly cheered on by their followers. Such perverted values!

Alas, the sarong, like our beloved keris, is now a metaphor for the erosion of our traditional values and the desecration of our culture. There is no index to measure that.

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