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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, November 19, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #81

Chapter 12: Fragmentation of Malaysian Society


The Divisiveness of Politics

Religion and elective politics are the two elements most responsible for the polarization of Malays (and also Malaysians). Political schisms are most pronounced naturally enough during UMNO and national elections. Perversely, UMNO elections are more pivotal because the party’s political hegemony has been unchallenged for over half a century, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. This is less a tribute to UMNO’s resilience and ability to change with the times but more the reflection of the weaknesses of the other parties. Whatever foibles and weaknesses UMNO has, the other parties have them worse.

During national elections, UMNO battles PAS specifically in the arena of Islam. Each would be consumed with burnishing its Islamic credentials, or to use Farish Noor’s phrase, to “out Islam the other.” Substantive economic and other issues are ignored.

During UMNO elections, the candidates are consumed with proving that they are the greatest defenders and champions of Malay rights and hegemony. It is at these times that expressions of Malay chauvinism are at their most ugly and crude.

In the past, such raw and nasty displays of racism by UMNO members would precipitate equally ballistic responses from members of the other races, in particular the Chinese. The results invariably were not pretty, with the May 1969 riot being the worse. Today in the heat of UMNO politics, its members would shamelessly make references to that hideous moment as if to prove their political manhood. They would be consumed with impressing others that they are the worthy modern day successors to Hang Tuah, the legendary warrior of feudal times. These UMNO warriors obviously view the 1969 incident as their moment of glory.

It would be best to ignore the antics and tantrums of these UMNO theater warriors. Behind every fiery rhetoric is a politician desperate for the members’ votes. Some non-Malays are slow at comprehending this; they have not quite grasped the essence of this Malay shadow play or sandiwara. Especially slow learners are DAP leaders like Lim Kit Siang. He and his supporters invariably get suckered into taking the bait. They end up merely amplifying the rhetoric and antics of these pseudo Hang Tuah wannabes.

Eventually even DAP leaders would learn that these UMNO personalities are merely engaging in a shadow boxing match, a wayang kulit (puppet show) of sorts, with only themselves and the dwindling faithful as the audience. Everyone else has turned them off or left the theater.
The religious polarization between UMNO and PAS is more problematic. There is no common external enemy to distract or make them rally together. In contrast, the political rivalry between UMNO and PAS could often be pushed aside by creating a presumed common enemy out there. The usual targets are the non-Malays, in particular the Chinese. That usually works, if only temporarily. Not so with the religious tussles between UMNO and PAS.

Non-Muslims are content to ignore this intra-faith battle among Malays; an unwise move as eventually it would affect them profoundly. If PAS wins (albeit a very remote possibility) and fulfills its promise of creating an Islamic state, non-Muslims would become essentially second-class citizens. If UMNO wins, it would be no different either as by then it would have been pushed far into the fundamentalist camp. There would not be much difference between UMNO and PAS in terms of their Islamic philosophy. The only difference is that UMNO is corrupt and PAS, incompetent.

This UMNO/PAS rivalry impacts Malays more than non-Malays. The biggest losers would be progressive, liberal Malays; the “winners” would be the fundamentalists. Their political “victory” would embolden them to become even more extreme. With the modern world passing them by, these fundamentalists would be forced to retreat further into their ever-shrinking shell. There they would preach their increasingly isolationist message to those who would be even more receptive, their fellow believers who are unable to adapt to the modern world.
Once in a while, out of sheer necessity they would emerge, not like what they see, and return to their shell even more galvanized to spread their message, with violence if need be. This is what is happening in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Non-Muslim Malaysians, immune to the influence of the fundamentalists, will increasingly become the relevant models for Malays who want to succeed. We already see this today, with otherwise chauvinistic Malay leaders unabashedly and without any trace of irony exhorting their followers to emulate the Chinese. The perennially impoverished conditions in Kedah, Trengganu and Kelantan, overwhelmingly Malay states that coincidentally also have strong Islamic influence, will further imprint on the minds of Malays that Islam equals backwardness.

If Malaysia were a closed society like Iran, I can see the fundamentalists tightening their grip. Even there, the fundamentalist are fast losing their hold, thanks to the influence of the Internet and satellite television. Iranian blogs are having far greater impact on young Iranians today than the Ayatollahs’ sermons.

Malays have already tasted the sweet fruits of freedom and free enterprise. They have the highest standard of living among Muslims including those from oil-rich Brunei and Saudi Arabia. Malays know that the modern amenities that make life so much more bearable if not downright enjoyable are brought about by technology that those fundamentalists so readily dismiss. The fundamentalists’ promise of a grander heaven will not persuade many. Muslims in Indonesia and the rest of Third World have yet to taste the comforts of modern life; the promise of a glorious afterlife is all they have to look forward.

I expect the number of fundamentalist Malays to decline, but they will become even more committed, more fanatical, and consequently more dangerous. The divide between liberal and fundamentalist Malays would not only deepen but would also take on the added dimension of social class. It is this confluence that is so treacherous. Islam and Malays would suffer. Instead of bringing Malays together, Islam would divide us. Instead of being an element to help us cope with the increasingly technological world, the faith would become a barrier to our successful adaptation.

These fates are not preordained. Later in Chapter 18, I will explore the more positive and exciting possibilities that Islam could play in the Malay world and beyond.


Next: Race Relations in Malaysia

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