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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, September 21, 2008

Thrust Forward Our Best Arguments, Not Our Kerises

BOOK REVIEW

Dr M. Bakri Musa
September 9, 2009

From UMNO Youth’s Hishamuddin wildly jabbing his keris to the malicious distribution of Pakatan Rakyat’s purported “Babi Cabinet” list, there is no question as to the coarsening of political discourse in Malaysia. That alone would not be enough to concern Malaysians.

We are also becoming dangerously polarized racially. Sadly, our leaders are blissfully ignoring this dangerous development; they continue egging on their supporters. Prime Minister Abdullah, as head of UMNO, has yet to admonish Hishammudin for his ugly race-taunting antics, thus implicitly encouraging others to do likewise.

This deepening polarization has many Malaysians worried. One of them is Suflan Shamsuddin. In his book, Reset: Rethinking The Malaysian Political Paradigm, Suflan puts forth his analysis of our current dilemma, and advances his unique solutions.

Suflan blames our race-based political parties. If he has his way, he would “reset” the current system such that only racially inclusive parties that consciously broaden their appeal to all communities could partake in elections. Non-inclusive parties that cater to a narrow racial base could contest only if they were to come under an inclusive coalition.

Suflan’s rationale is clear. These parties would then have to broaden their appeal and not, as at present, cater to their most chauvinistic followers. Under his plan, race-exclusive parties like UMNO, MCA and MIC that come together under an “inclusive coalition” like Barisan Nasional would be allowed to contest elections, but not PAS, unless it were to come under similar inclusive coalition, which it did in the last election under Pakatan Rakyat.

To Suflan, only the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the only two race inclusive parties, would be allowed to contest under their own banner.

This is the weakness of his argument. While PKR is genuinely multiracial in its ideals and membership, DAP is not. While DAP’s constitution may explicitly state that it is non-racial, in reality Malays are as rare in that party as a meat dish in a vegetarian restaurant. Gerakan still has its inclusive ideals, at least in the beginning; today it is exclusively Chinese and fighting to displace MCA in the Barisan coalition.

You cannot rely on a party’s name or professed ideals on whether it is inclusive or not. After all, North Korea calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. They fool only themselves.

In truth, today’s political realities demand that parties broaden their appeal across racial boundaries unless they are satisfied with their perpetual fringe opposition status. Even the insular folks in PAS recognize this, however clumsily. In the last election it fielded its token non-Muslim candidate, and a woman at that! The remarkable success of the opposition parties in the last election when they coalesced under the Pakatan Rakyat banner is another proof of this.

The test on whether a party is racially inclusive or exclusive lies not with its constitution or avowed declarations of its leaders, rather on how it is being perceived by voters. Barring particular parties ahead of time is not the answer. Let voters decide. They have a good track record, having buried such entities as Parti Negara and the Socialist Front.

PKR’s recent spectacular success indicates that Malaysians are now warming up to the idea of non race-based parties; there is no need for any legislation as per Suflan’s suggestion. Nor do I fully agree with his assessment that the political system is to be blamed for our present predicament. I too wish that our politicians would not pander to and stir up the baser racial instincts of their followers.

The greater blame must however, fall on leaders, in particular Prime Minister Abdullah. It is his willful neglect that permitted our racial sore to reopen, and now spewing out its putrid poison.

Earlier leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Razak managed to rein in and in many instances disassociate themselves from the excesses of their chauvinistic followers. The greatest threat to a plural society like Malaysia is a weak and ineffective leader. Unfortunately that is what we have in Abdullah. Note that even Mahathir overcame his earlier reputation as an ultra nationalist by being a decisive leader.

As Suflan rightly observes, our “country has survived … distrust, prejudices and antagonism between communities … by recognizing natural political cleavages along racial lines …. We successfully relied on communal representation ….”

In making his case for race-inclusive parties, Suflan, like others, also implies that Malaysia’s greatest threat is interracial conflict. I disagree. The most likely and dangerous threat is not inter-racial rather intra-racial, specifically conflicts among Malays. Malays are dangerously polarized along cultural, religious and socioeconomic lines. Worse, those fracture lines converge; affluent, liberal, urban, secular Malays versus their poorer, rural, conservative, Arab-oriented brethrens.

Further, disputes between Malays and non-Malays are over material matters, like scholarships, access to contracts, and economic opportunities. These are what Albert Hirschmann calls “divisible conflicts;” they can be resolved through negotiations and compromises. Splits among Malays on the other hand are over core values; they are “indivisible conflicts,” not readily solvable and thus more dangerous.

Consider this: UMNO Youth leaders have regular golf games with their counterparts in Singapore’s PAP but have yet to engage PAS Youth members in any goodwill gestures. They do not even attend the same mosque!

Re-Examining The Social Contract

The bulk of the book deals with Suflan’s analysis of the current malaise and schisms in our political system, and on the path we had taken to be where we are today. Suflan contributes enormously to the national dialogue. His is a nuanced discussion, his arguments put forth deliberately and rationally, with no diatribes, grandstanding, name-calling, or demonizing any party or personality.

Whether discussing Ketuanan Melayu, the New Economic Policy, the social contract our earlier leaders struck, or the special place of Islam and Malay rulers in our constitution, Suflan presents the various viewpoints objectively and conveys the passions of their proponents. He does not advocate any particular position, rather for us to understand and appreciate the different perspectives. His is an exercise in educating and informing, from someone well qualified by experience and training to do so.

Trust comes only through better understanding the various communities’ concerns and aspirations. As Suflan rightly observes, without trust, not even the most elaborate contract would save a relationship. This caution is particularly relevant to those who think that by merely tinkering with the constitution or passing legislations we would reduce distrusts or build relationships.

We could abolish the NEP overnight through legislation but that would not solve our race relations unless we also address the basic issues that brought forth that policy. By the same token we could remove the egregious abuses of the NEP through executive actions without waiting for changes in statutes, and thus remove the bulk of the grievances Malays as well as non-Malays have towards that policy. More practically, doing so would not stir the racial hornet’s nest.

Suflan is a corporate attorney with a multinational firm, and is based in London. The forte of such lawyers is in bringing various parties together and closing the deal. Their skills are in earning the trust and respect of all sides through frank discussions of potential pitfalls and emphasizing the mutual benefits. This book reflects Suflan’s professional style. It attempts to bring Malaysians together by pointing out the dangers of relentlessly pursuing our current narrow and divisive path as compared to the rewards that would accrue were we to change to a strategy of more inclusiveness.

Contrast that to the style and often personality of trial lawyers a la Karpal Singh who relish courtroom histrionics in order to sway judges and juries. Theirs is to demolish the credibility of the other side. Malaysian politics would do well with more Suflans and fewer Karpals. Politicians who advocate forcefully for the narrow racial interests of their followers may win their little battles but would eventually lose the war.

Malaysian politics faces yet another major problem. In the past politics attracted the talented and ambitious; today those Malaysians are more likely to succumb to the lures of the lucrative private sector or multinational corporations. Suflan is a ready example. Attracting such talents to politics is the one major challenge for Malaysia. Our leaders have yet to recognize this.

Consequently we have what had been termed as “Division III” leaders. Worse, some are outright flunkies who think that they can buy their way into anything, including seemingly impressive doctorates. They are also ruthlessly ambitious, a dangerous combination. We will continue having them until we attract talents like Suflan to politics.

With RESET Suflan initiates an important dialogue; he invites all Malaysians to partake in it. We would also do well to emulate his style: cool, rationale, and hearing as well as respecting all sides. That is, instead of thrusting our kerises we should thrust our best arguments.

RESET:Rethinking the Malaysian P

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