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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, October 01, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia $74

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #74

Chapter 11: Learning From Our Successes

Peaceful Merdeka

Many nations endlessly glorify their battles for independence, with the citizens incessantly lionizing their fallen heroes. Malaysia is thankfully spared such a fate; we negotiated our freedom. If there were any liquid spilled on the occasion, it would have been the splashing of champagne as the Malaysian delegation celebrated its successful mission. The Tunku who led the team was a Muslim, butnot of the fundamentalist variety; he was not above such occasional indulgences.

As he so often readily and humbly admitted, he had his weaknesses! Malaysians have no epic tales of titanic battles and heroic exploits against the colonialists to delight and inspire the young. Thus it would be easy to belittle our achievement. The Indonesians are particularly fond of doing that to us. They mock us for our lack of heroes like their fiery and charismatic Sukarno. I much prefer heroes the likes of Tunku to the Sukarnos and Ho Chin Minhs. Conveniently forgotten in their adulation of these “freedom fighters” are the thousands of innocent lives killed or maimed in the pursuit of the dreams of these heroes. I am glad that my parents, brothers and uncles were not killed in unnecessary battles fighting the British. If that were the price for Malaysia lacking heroes and freedom fighters, I accept it gladly.

It is appropriate to ask why Malaysia was successful in negotiating its way to independence while others were not. It could not simply be the tide of history, with being an imperial power no longer chic and that Britain would have given up its colonies anyway. Britain is still holding tight to Northern Ireland, and stayed right to the very last day of its lease over Hong Kong. The Russians still think that having colonies is cool; they brutally suppress the independence movement in Chechnya. The Chinese think that colonizing Tibet is their divine right.

The Tunku successfully sweet-talked the British into granting Malaysia its independence. He was smart enough to recognize that Britain would never have granted independence until it was assured that our multiracial Malaysians would not massacre one another once we were on our own. The British did not want to repeat the tragic Indian catastrophe. There was a foretaste of what a racial conflict in Malaysia would be like during the brief period of lawlessness between the Japanese surrendering and Britain taking over right after World War II.

It was the genius of the Tunku that he was able to convince the British that we Malaysians (or Malayans as were then called) could live together peacefully without the British being around to keep us calm and civilized. He demonstrated that admirably and convincingly by forming a coalition of the political parties of the three major races.

Achieving independence peacefully is one thing; doing something positive with it is another. Under the Tunku, Malaysia’s independence was a transforming event. He saw it not as an opportunity for personal or national aggrandizement but for developing his people. Unlike Sukarno who splurged on expensive and useless military hardware, the Tunku built schools and trained teachers.

It was not simply a matter of one leader making a wise choice and the other a foolish one. It was more fundamental. Sukarno felt that he was sent by God specifically to lead the Indonesian people; it was his manifest destiny. His fate was foretold in some old Javanese legend, and retold many times over by obscure village séances and fortunetellers. He knew what to do; God had given him special powers, so he believed. Those who disagreed with him, like his able deputy Dr. Mohammad Hatta, would suffer the terrible consequences.

The modest Tunku on the other hand did not have that fatal conceit, to use von Hayek’s memorable phrase. He knew he was not destined for greatness. He stumbled upon the leadership of UMNO accidentally, when its towering leader and the man who founded the organization, Datuk Onn, walked out in a huff, sulking when his followers would not do his bidding. To be sure, the Tunku was no dummy; he had his Cambridge degree to prove that. When as a District Officer in some nondescript rural area of Kedah, he met an Indian soothsayer who predicted that the Tunku would one day be the country’s leader, he could hardly contain his mirth.

The Tunku recognized his limitations, a rare trait among leaders. Consequently he was not averse to seeking counsel and relying on others far smarter than he was. Intuitively and by extension he also recognized the limitations of his nation. He knew Malaysia could not afford an expensive military to face external threats as well as internal ones like the then still very active communist insurgency. Thus he signed a defense treaty with Britain. He saw no shame in doing that, nor did he perceive it as being in any way a slight on the new nation’s sovereignty. Spared a hefty military budget, he was able to concentrate on investments on his people.

Malaysia was lucky to be led at its birth by the Tunku. For too many nations,

independence meant nothing but endless disasters. India’s independence brought misery and massacre to millions. The continuing strife in Kashmir is a deadly reminder of the tragedy that was the Indian independence.

For much of the Arab world and the African continent, independence is but a cruel hoax on their citizens. Many undertake desperate measures to escape their country and enter the world of their previous colonizers.

Malaysians have a lot to thank the Tunku. Apart from sparing the nation from the dubious glories of the battles of independence, he also firmly committed Malaysia towards free enterprise. The Tunku must have been exposed to von Hayek at Cambridge, for the Tunku, like Hayek, saw through the falsity of socialism long before the rest of the world. Malaysia’s subsequent economic development owes much to that early commitment to free enterprise.

Next: Defeat of Communist Terrorists

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