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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 22, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #77

Chapter 12: Fragmentation of Malaysian Society

When the vase is broken, it matters not whether a stone or feather that strikes it.
—Malay proverb

Malaysians increasingly view themselves less as “we” and more as “us” versus “them.” The “us” could be Malays versus the “them,” non-Malays. For Muslims, it could be “us” progressive liberals versus “them” conservative fundamentalists.

Among Bumiputras, there are the “us” Muslim Bumis versus the “them” non-Muslim Bumis. Among Chinese Malaysians, the “us” could be those who have successfully adapted to the Malaysian realities and proudly display their Datukand Tan Sri-ships, while the “them” are those in the DAP who think that the very future of the great Chinese civilization rests on their shoulders. As for Indian Malaysians, the “us” could be those who have forsaken their “anak lelaki” (son of) or “anak perempuan” (daughter of) of their birth certificates for a “bin” or “binte,” acquired an affected Kedah accent, and voila, become ardent champions of Malay rights! The “them” is of course the rest.

This has not always been the case. Malaysia gained its independence on the premise that we would all be, well, “we.” That was the social contract agreed upon, at least by our earlier leaders. It was they, through their leadership and personal demonstrations of their “we-ness,” that brought their followers together to this grand experiment called Malaysia. The British would certainly not have granted the country its independence otherwise; it did not want its hands bloodied again as with the Indian sub-continent catastrophe.

The British premise was that the greatest threat to Malaysia’s viability was not the then active communist insurgency, but that Malaysians would savagely turn against each other. That was not an imagined fear. There were already intimations of such tragedies. Besides, the world is full of deadly examples of people turning upon their fellow citizens. A seasoned gambler would wisely not bet against the British.

This is still the prevalent view in Malaysia, that is, the greatest threat to its stability is interracial strife. I disagree. On the contrary, the greatest threat facing Malaysia today is not conflict between the races rather divisions within a race, specifically Malays. That is the more real and likely danger.

Divisions between Malays and non-Malays had been over issues that are referred to as “divisible conflicts;” meaning, they can be resolved through negotiations. Divisions within Malays however originate with differences over core values and beliefs. They are “indivisible conflicts,” not readily negotiated and therefore much more dangerous.1

Divisible Versus Indivisible Conflicts

The mark of a civilized society is how it handles conflicts not only within itself but also with others. In primitive times, we resorted to killing each other. We would like to think that we have moved away from that, but we have not. The only difference between then and now is the sophistication and hence the lethality of our killing machines, substituting primitive arrows for guided missiles.

Conflicts are inevitable. Whenever two individuals come together, we immediately have the potential for one. Conflicts can arise even within the same person. Such inner conflicts can create even greater havoc. The mark of a wise man, it is said, is the ability to tolerate simultaneously two contradictory views. We all can learn how to handle conflicts better.

Divisible conflicts are those that can be resolved through negotiations, with the parties eventually coming to a compromise. You may think the fire caused $150K worth of damage to the house, but the insurance adjuster valued it at only $120K. That is a divisible conflict as you could negotiate a figure somewhere in between that would be acceptable to both. On the other hand, if you like the house design but your spouse does not, then that is an indivisible conflict. It is more difficult to compromise, as it is a matter of values and esthetics. The only solution would be to learn to live with such differences.

Conflicts between Malays and non-Malays belong mostly to the divisible category, involving such issues as the award of scholarships, university admissions, government contracts, or number of cabinet seats. Those can be resolved through negotiations, albeit tough and contentious. The number of scholarships and cabinet positions could be increased to satisfy both parties.

The conflicts among Malays over issues like religion and language are not divisible, and therefore more difficult if not impossible to resolve. Hence they are much more dangerous. If a PAS Malay were to believe that chopping off the hand for stealing is a Quranic imperative and therefore should be the law of the land, and if you disagree with that interpretation, there is no room for compromise. There is no middle point, as for example, cutting only the finger. The kafir mengafir (true believers versus presumed infidels) debate between UMNO and PAS was so acrimonious precisely because that conflict was over issues that were not readily divisible.

Sadly, Malay leaders are blithely unaware of the dangerous consequences of such indivisible conflicts; they eagerly egg on their followers. Fortunately the Malay masses are wiser and more astute; they have learned to ignore their leaders, for the most part.

Civil and religious wars are that much more vicious and difficult to resolve because they are based on indivisible conflicts. The American Civil War dragged on because it was initially viewed as an indivisible conflict. The Confederates believed that it was their divine rights to own slaves; the Northerners believed that was an inherent violence to the American ideals. There was no middle ground. In reality that conflict, like most, was over economics. Marx was correct in that the root of all conflicts is economics, but it would be difficult to whip up your followers into a killing frenzy over mere money or material gains. You have to agitate them by wrapping your cause under such noble values as freedom, equality, justice, or the latest, democracy. Only when the Civil War was viewed as essentially an economic conflict over the rights of Southerners to have cheap labor (slaves) was a resolution possible. The subsequent introduction of farm machinery effectively removed slave ownership as a competitive advantage.

Not all differences between Malays and non-Malays are divisible, that is over the distribution of privileges and the state’s largesse. The doctrine of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony), so much hyped up by UMNO leaders, is an indivisible conflict between Malays and non-Malays. Non-Malays can either accept (or be forced to) or they do not. There is no middle ground.
The solution to the conflict over Ketuanan Melayu is not to view it as an indivisible conflict over the “real owners” of Malaysia, but to see it in its practical realities, a conflict over economic issues, just like slavery was with the American civil war.

A good beginning would be to critically analyze the doctrine more carefully. Both the premise and promise of Ketuanan Melayu are false. The premise that since Malaya was once Tanah Melayu (lit. Land of the Malays), Malays must automatically be Tuan (Master) perpetrates a cruel hoax on them. It implies that Malays do not have to work hard to be Tuan. Malays have convinced themselves that they are Tuan simply through the operation of the law, a social contract agreed upon by earlier leaders, or perhaps through some grand divine design.

The promise of Ketuanan Melayu is equally false, and doubly cruel. It breeds an unnecessary and unproductive sense of entitlement among Malays. We are led to believe that with Ketuanan Melayu, the world (at least that within the Malaysian border) would be at our beck and call simply because we are Malays. We use the constitution to anoint us with the glorious title Ketuanan Melayu, and then confidently proclaim that our language, culture, and norms would prevail. When our own little (much less the greater) world does not pay any heed, we become even shriller in demanding our rights as Tuan.

All such maneuvers succeed in doing is to delay the day of reckoning. It prevents Malays from realizing the stark reality that in this era of globalization we all have to earn and work to be Tuan. While Malays are content fantasizing being de jure (by operation of law) Tuan, non-Malays through their competitiveness have become de facto (as a matter of fact) Tuan in Malaysia.

When reality strikes (as it will inevitably), it will be a rude shock unless Malays disabuse themselves of the false promise of Ketuanan Melayu.

If we were to view Ketuanan Melayu at its symbolic and emotional level, then the conflict over it is indivisible, thus not resolvable. Viewed from its practical economic perspective, we would effectively convert it to a divisible conflict, and thus potentially solvable. Who cares who “owns” Malaysia; besides, what does it mean that Malays own Malaysia? It does not mean that a Malay could simply grab anything in Malaysia and claim it as his or her own. The harsh reality is that beneath the rhetoric and emotions over Ketuanan Melayu is the realization that Malays are left behind and are fast being marginalized economically. That is the real issue. If we resolve that, then the issue of who owns Malaysia becomes meaningless, and Marx would have been proven right once again.

Malaysian leaders would do well to remember and emphasize this crucial point. At the heart of the obsession with Malay hegemony is a cry for Malays begging not to be marginalized in the land of their birth. They are obsessed because they are indeed being rapidly left behind. Recognize this fact, and we are that much closer towards finding a solution. If we focus on the emotional issue of Ketuanan Melayu, then we will tear the nation apart, and both Malays and non-Malays would suffer together.

Instead of harping on such nebulous issues as the social contract and what was agreed or not agreed upon in the days leading to independence to buttress the claim of Malay “ownership” of Malaysia, it would be more fruitful to focus on how to make all Malaysians, in particular Malays, productive and competitive. Then they could indeed feel a sense of ownership and contribute accordingly towards the betterment of the nation.

Focusing on indivisible conflicts is non-productive; it would only aggravate them. It is more productive to try resolving the more solvable divisible conflicts. Solving them also creates goodwill, which gets transferred onto other areas. With time and the accumulation of a reservoir of trust and goodwill, we would learn to live with our indivisible conflicts, or that they would have become irrelevant. If Malays were to become competitive and play their rightful role in the economy, they would no longer be obsessed over Malay hegemony, and Ketuanan Melayu would cease to be a source of conflict, indivisible or otherwise.

Since divisions among Malays are more important and difficult to resolve than interracial differences, I will deal with that first.

Next: Polarization of Malays


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