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.
Happy Holidays and Season's Greetings! (Please note there will be no fresh posting until January 4th, 2009.)
This was the topic for a small group discussion at a recent seminar organized by Kelab UMNO New York/New Jersey. I was a passive participant at this dialogue, at least initially.
In the ensuing discussions, the students duly reaffirmed the greatness of Islam, citing many ready examples. Islam emancipated the ancient Bedouins out of their Age of Jahilliyah (Ignorance), and did it all within a generation. Islam then spread as far westward as Andalusia and eastward right up to China. In the process Islam inspired and created great civilizations and empires that lasted till at least the early part of the last century.
After over 1400 years however, Islam (at least the physical empire, though not the faith) was done in by European colonialism. With colonialism’s ending, there was a quick resurgence of Islam. Today it is the faith of a quarter of the world’s population, and fast growing.
Islam has been part of the Malay world for well over half a millennium. It is very much an integral part of our “Malayness” such that the statutory definition of a Malay is tied to the faith. Our embrace of Islam remains firm if not enhanced, despite being under complete Western (specifically British) colonial domination for a good portion of the time.
With the resurgence of Islam, Malays like Muslims everywhere yearn for the return of those earlier glorious days. Thus far that is all there is to it – just a yearning; much of the Muslim world remains tragically mired in poverty, with its citizens deprived of their basic human dignity and rights.
In Malaysia, the achievement gaps between Malays and non-Malays continue to widen despite the political leadership and public institutions being dominated by Malays. This glaring disparity remains a continuous source of communal angst, triggering more than just a few occasions of mass “acting out” behaviors as keris wielding and shrill calls for Ketuanan Melayu.
Why is Islam unable to emancipate Malays as it did the ancient Bedouins? What went wrong? Being true believers, the students rightly asserted that there is nothing wrong with this great faith, rather with our understanding – and thus practice – of it.
We are obsessed with rituals at the expense of appreciating the essence of Islam, the students observed. The universal message of Islam is lost with the associated Arabism, they continued. We are consumed in being Arabs, or at least aping them in the belief that it is the same thing as being Islamic or pious.
In teaching our young we are too preoccupied with being punitive and not enough with being positive. When they are naughty or grab a toy from another child, we would admonish them by saying that God would punish them by burning them in hell. Such concepts are beyond the comprehension of young minds, except to imprint on them horror-filled images of suffering and torture.
A more understandable and thus effective way would be to teach those children to imagine how they would feel if someone were to steal their toys. Such an approach would also be an excellent way to impart upon them the Golden Rule, to do unto others what you want done to you, a basic precept in all faiths.
We make our young recite and even memorize the Quran at a very early age without expending commensurate time and effort in teaching them the meaning or significance of those verses in our every day lives. We have reduced this great religion to a series of rituals instead of being a guide to a “total way of life” that is righteous, pleases Allah, and leads to a harmonious society. We pray, fast, pay our tithe, and undertake the pilgrimage but then go right ahead and accept bribes, neglect our jobs, and ignore our families and society.
We go to great lengths avoiding pork and improperly slaughtered chicken and cows, rightly considering them haram, but we have no compulsion in accepting bribes or neglecting our duties.
The students did a credible job of societal self-introspection. As they were summarizing their conclusions to present to the larger group, I enquired how we as a society have strayed from the central message of Islam. More relevantly, how could we rediscover the essence of Islam so that it too would do for us what it did for the ancient Arabs?
Taqlid, Bidaa, and Tajdid
Taqlid and bidaa are two central concepts in the learning and transmission of Islam. Taqlid refers to following the teachings of those more learned and pious than and before us. Specifically, it refers to adhering to the practices of one of the established schools of jurisprudence or mahdhab.
The Arabic root of the word means to place a collar around the neck, as we would to guide an animal. The operative word there is “guide,” to lead us along the straight path.
Malay villagers however, do not put a collar around our kerbau (buffalo) rather a ring through its nose. It serves the same purpose, and more. For in addition to leading the animal we also effectively control it.
Therein lies the problem. Does taqlid mean letting us be guided or be controlled? Is taqlid a collar slung loosely around our neck to nudge us to the left or right as a rein to a horse, or a ring pierced through our nose as with our kerbau? There is a vast difference between paying deference to precedents (as lawyers and judges do) versus being held captive by them. If it were the latter, slavery would still be legal in America.
Likewise with bidaa; with every khutba the Imam would duly warn the flock of the awesome Hellfire that awaits those who would dare engage in bidaa. Invariably the word is translated as “innovation.” “Innovation” means more than just change; it implies change for the better, and thus something commendable and to strive for. Bidaa obviously does not mean innovation; it is closer to corruption or adulteration, hence the dire warning against partaking in it!
My point here was to sensitize the students to the potential treacherous trap in interpreting the meaning of words especially where translations were involved. Such dangers exist even without translations, as words can change their meanings and connotations over time. During the prophet’s time for example, poets were held in low regard, as clearly stated in some Quranic verses, as they used their talent to mock the prophet.
Thus when a religious scholar quotes a verse from the Quran or hadith and then confidently assert with such certitude, “And the verse means … ,” that belies an arrogant mindset, impervious to reasons and intolerant of differing interpretations. A more humble and also accurate way would be to add the proviso, “When approximately translated.” Translations are at best approximate and provisional.
Our Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., anticipated this erosion and corruption of the faith, as had happened to earlier revelations to other prophets before him. Hence the Quranic references to the appearance of a “prophet amongst us every hundred years” to renew the faith by getting rid of the inevitable accretions of extraneous practices and beliefs that would inevitably develop over time. “Prophet” here of course means “leader,” as to Muslims Muhammad, s.a.w, was the Last Prophet.
This concept of renewal or tajdid is a long established tradition in Islam. However, we cannot have renewal if we remain a slave to precedents, or if we consider every change a bidaa or an affront to taqlid. Islam has never been short of reformers, right from the first rightly-guided caliphs to the rationalists Mutazilites and many modern-day reformers. Like reformers in other faith, some have paid dearly for their attempts.
America with its freedom provides fertile ground for the renewal of Islam. America is also fortunate in having many brilliant Islamic scholars who have been driven away from their native land for their innovative ideas. To their folks back home, these reformers are engaging in bidaa, a mortal sin.
We are also fortunate in America to have the freedom to explore the rich and varied traditions of our faith. In Malaysia you could be detained under the ISA for reading Shiite literature! To put that in perspective, that is the same punishment if you were to engage in subversive or communist activities. Add to that the favorite past time of our leaders: banning books and restricting speakers! That ring through our noses can be very restricting!
What went Right
To end the students’ discussion on a positive note, I asked them to consider the flip side of their query, to ponder what went right. I nudged them to imagine what would have happened had Islam not landed on our shores.
One student reacted with horror at that prospect as we would then still have our animist ways and Hindu beliefs. At which point I enquired whether the Balinese (who are racially Malays) are somehow inferior to us because they are not Muslims. Or for that matter the Protestant Bataks in Sumatra.
As that seemed to dampen the discussion, I volunteered that there are many things that went right with Islam and Malays. Seeing it strictly from my professional perspective, I am glad that Malays are Muslims. When I was a surgeon in Malaysia, I never saw a single case of alcohol-related injuries among Malays. Before America had its strict drunk driving laws, a large part of my work as a surgeon was to repair the horrible damages wrecked by drunks. In the Philippines, alcohol-related crimes and injuries are rampant.
I wish our Quran would have similar explicit prohibitions against drugs and corruption as it does against alcohol!
On a higher level, Islam introduced the written word to our world. Once a society adopted a written culture, there is a quantum lap in its intellectual development. Yes, before the arrival of Arabic Malays had Sanskrit, but that was a dead language. Many of the ancient Malay literature are adaptations of stories from the Middle East, and our language borrows heavily from Arabic.
On that positive note we ended the discussion. What went wrong is not with Islam rather how we have missed the essence of this great faith in our obsession with its peripherals.
Minorities in Malaysia behave like Hispanics in American in not wanting to integrate with or accept the mainstream culture. Unlike the Hispanics however, Malaysian minorities are not interested in maintaining their own ways, except for the few chauvinists among them. Instead, they wish to prepare themselves for the wider (and more prosperous) English-speaking world. They have little desire to learn Mandarin or Tamil, preferring English instead. They are being pragmatic; they need an insurance policy to escape Malaysia if need be. A disdain for Malay language and culture plays only a minor role. When they emigrate, they opt not for China or India (the expected destinations if maintaining their culture and language were the prime motive), rather the West. The Chinese minority in Malaysia is substantial, and their influence parallels their greater economic power. Like the Hispanics in America, they feel no compulsion to integrate into the mainstream. I am truly astounded to see seemingly bright young Chinese who proudly proclaim that they cannot speak Malay. Even an idiot after living in Malaysia for a few years would pick up the language. Their attitude is that Malay, despite being the national language of their homeland, does not merit their attention. It is this stupid attitude that inflames Malay extremism. These “ultras” would readily accuse the Chinese and others of using Malaysia as merely a steppingstone to hop to the West. No matter how well Malaysia treats its talented citizens (Chinese, Malays or anyone lese), it could never match what the First World has to offer them. That is a reality. The Singapore government treats its Chinese citizens royally, yet on a per capita basis, the emigration rates of Singapore Chinese are still high. Singapore may offer material comforts comparable to the West, but not the freedom. Likewise with the Indians in India, despite the nationalistic Hindu government, many Indians still emigrate. The argument of Chinese Malaysians who emigrate because they felt they were being discriminated in Malaysia is disingenuous at best and malicious at worst. I left Malaysia because I was fortunate to have better opportunities in America, specifically California. Yes, there are faults with Malaysia. Had I been living in a less attractive part of America (Montana for example) or if my talent more valued in Malaysia, I would gladly return. Malaysia should make every effort to retain its talented citizens. Regardless, no matter how hard it tries, there will be some who will find better opportunities elsewhere and will leave. We should not harbor any resentment towards them. Instead, Malaysia should make itself attractive to the talented regardless whether they are Malaysians or not, and be prepared to pay the going global rate for such resources. The rate of emigration among the talented and educated is a good indicator of whether the nation is pursuing the right policies. I noticed this back in the 1960s when many Japanese students in the West opted to return home instead of staying back. I saw it again in the 1980s when many established Korean scientists and professionals uprooted themselves to return home. I am seeing the same phenomenon now with students from China. They go where there are better potential opportunities. Singapore is slightly skewed. While many of its students do return, they do so not on their own volition but because their government puts strong contractual requirements that makes it near impossible for them to stay back even if they wanted to. A better indicator is to find out what they do once they complete their obligation. Many do end up back in the West; an early warning sign. All things being equal (they rarely are) we should favor locals over foreigners, not because of nationalism or misguided sense of patriotism, but for the practical reasons that locals are more likely to stay and have better knowledge of local conditions. If there were no qualified local personnel, then I would not hesitate recruiting from abroad. In the 1950s and 60s Malaysia imported many teachers from India. I and many others benefited immensely from these foreign teachers. They considered themselves lucky to come to Malaysia knowing well their dismal status had they remained in India. Consequently they were grateful and contributed wholeheartedly to the nation. These are the immigrants Malaysia should welcome, regardless whether they are from the East or West. That is more productive and fruitful than forever lamenting those native sons and daughters who have left.
Malaysian institutions, in particular the schools and colleges, contribute substantially to the fragmentation of society. I will deal with this issue more fully in the next chapter. Among the things the British did right in Malaysia was to introduce the English system of education, even though they did not make any attempt at modifying it to cater to local sensitivities. The model English school was transplanted directly into the Malaysian jungle, right down to the teachers, buildings, and curricula. Were the British to repeat that same experiment today, it would be viewed as the height of imperial folly and arrogance. It is a recipe for disaster not to pay deference to local cultural nuances. The British did not build many schools, just enough to satisfy their colonial conscience. What they lacked in quantity, these schools more than made up in quality. They were superb and attracted all Malaysians, but located as they were in major towns, they enrolled a disproportionate number of children of urban dwellers, mainly non-Malays. These students with their superior education later became the country’s leaders. As they had spent their younger days together, they had readymade social bonding. This helped considerably in smoothing over the inevitable political and other differences. The bulk of the citizens however went to separate vernacular schools; they did not benefit from mixing with other than their own kind. Nonetheless seeing the pattern of cordiality and cooperation set by their leaders, they followed suit. It was the promise of such interracial cooperation that prompted the British to grant Malaysia its independence. The number of such schools rapidly expanded following independence, opening up opportunities for Malays to partake in this superior education. Now more young Malaysians could study together in a multiracial environment. The pattern began to unravel in the 1980s with the mandate making Malay the exclusive language of instruction in national schools. Non-Malays readily adjusted to this, realizing the importance of the national language. Emboldened with this early and easy success, and in a further attempt at imposing Malay cultural hegemony, Malay nationalists began making Islam increasingly important at these schools. The school ambience became decidedly more Islamic. Female students had to wear tudong; they could not wear short skirts or partake in sports. School assemblies began adopting the trappings of Islamic religious rituals. The tempo of Islamization was increased to enhance the Islamic credentials of whoever was the Minister of Education. The man who pushed this to its extreme was Anwar Ibrahim. The result was that non-Muslims felt increasingly out of place in national schools and began abandoning the system for vernacular schools where their classmates would only be their own kind. Thus the pattern of racial segregation in schools seen during colonial times returned, this time voluntarily and with a vengeance. This Islamization also affects Malays. Those who feel that it has not gone far enough also abandon the national schools for religious ones, where Islam consumes an even greater portion of the curriculum. Those who feel that Islamic subjects are taking too much time at the expense of important secular subjects like science and mathematics, send their children to Chinese schools. The affluent and influential few send theirs abroad or to local international schools. I cannot help but imagine where Malays would be today had our leaders not tinkered too radically with the excellent school system left behind by the British. Had the government merely increased the number of English schools especially in rural areas (to increase access to the Malays) but retained the curriculum and English as the medium of instruction, and at the same time caved in to the demands of the Chinese and Indians by letting them expand their vernacular schools, the situation today would be far different. Malays would be fluent in English and their skills in demand globally, while the Chinese and Indians would be trapped in their own racial enclaves. This is the price Malays have paid and are continuing to pay for our excessive nationalism, especially in matters of language. Beyond the school, this pattern of self-segregation continues through in the colleges and universities. This segregation of our young during their formative years is the major factor contributing to the fragmentation of Malaysian society. Unless corrected, it would be the nation’s undoing.
It is disheartening to note that while world leaders from Gordon Brown to Barack Obama are consumed with the evolving global economic crisis – the worse since the Great Depression – Malaysian leaders are obsessed with such trivialities as whether yoga would undermine our faith in Islam, and on such silly issues as Malay special privileges.
This is not just my observation.The Sultan of Selangor recently took the unprecedented step of publicly upbraiding our elected leaders for harping on such trivial matters.His Highness was right; he went further.For the first time he will not be awarding Datukships to politicians on the occasion of his upcoming royal birthday.That is as public a humiliation as it gets.Now if only the other rulers and the Agong would follow in this sultan’s fine example, it might just shame our political leaders to take their responsibilities seriously.
As for these politicians “concerns” with the fate of Islam, consider this.If brutal dictators like Stalin and Mao Zeedong could not suppress the faith, rest assured that a little bit of calisthenics in the park would not erode our faith in Islam.Nonetheless I am “touched” by the concerns of these self-professed defenders of our faith.I would have more confidence if they were the paragon of all things Islamic, like advocating a fatwa against corruption and having some respect for basic human rights.
As for the special status of Malay customs, institutions, and language, this is also the favorite cause for these Hang Tuah wannabes.Never mind that those rights are enshrined in our constitution; only those Malays who are pathologically paranoid or inherently insecure would need to be incessantly reassured of this fact.To alter it would require amending the constitution, a process requiring a two-third majority vote in Parliament.It is beyond me why we Malays have to worry about this.
The crux of the issue is not with the fact of the special privilege clause in the constitution rather how to execute that to benefit the Malay masses.That is a challenge beyond the capacity of current Malay leaders; hence their preoccupation with these distracting trivialities.
Malays are not the only ones in need of constant reassurance.There are those who, despite having their ancestors born in this country, going ballistic whenever an idiot makes references to their foreign origin.They too are plagued by their persistent paranoia and incessant insecurity as to their rightful status in this country.
My sense of disappointment is more keenly felt as I am currently witnessing President-elect Obama unrolling his new leadership team.To a person his nominees are all accomplished individuals, having made their mark in academia, the professions, public service, or the corporate world.They not only look competent but also speak with confidence and considerable authority.Most of all they talk sense.That is very reassuring, at a time when the public needs it badly.
.Then there are the assorted characters now vying for leadership positions in UMNO, and thus aspiring to lead our nation.To begin with, there is Najib Razak, unopposed to be the next leader of UMNO, and thus the next Prime Minister.With the country afflicted by rampant crime, the best that he could offer was for citizens to change our perception of it!
As for his supposed knowledge of economics, his major as an undergraduate at a provincial British university decades ago, he is nonchalant about the threatening global economic crisis.Even FELDA farmers have a better grasp of threat of this global crisis, having seen their livelihood destroyed with the plummeting price of palm oil.
Then there are the three candidates for UMNO Deputy Leader.Muhyyiddin Yassin is more upset with his former cabinet colleague Zaid Ibrahim attending Pakatan Rakyat’s party convention.I would have expected as Trade Minister, Muhyyiddin would be consumed with the ongoing free trade negotiations with America rather than be bothered with what Zaid is doing in his spare time.At the very least Muhyyiddin should be busy drumming up foreign investments or finding new markets for our palm oil, especially during these trying economic times.
The second candidate, Malacca’s Chief Minister Ali Rustam, is too enthralled with Bollywood studs, having just awarded one of them with a Datukship.The song and dance of the Hindi movie is more his style.What a contrast in values between that state and Selangor!
.The third aspirant, the double Muhammad Taib, was the fellow who was arrested at an Australian airport a few years back with literally millions in cash in his back pocket.Nobody, least of all Prime Minister Abdullah, has ever asked this former school teacher how he acquired his fabulous wealth.In a display of courage borne of stupidity, he publicly took on Raja Petra of Malaysia-Today accusing him of insulting Islam.Raja Petra mercilessly humiliated Muhammad Taib into silence by exposing this politician’s sordid past.
These are the best of Malay leadership that we could offer for the world to preview.Obviously what Malays need most in the constitution is not the current “special privileges” provision rather a clause to protect us from these inept and corrupt leaders.
The veteran political observer David Broder observed that Americans have a lot to be thankful for at this Thanksgiving.At a time of severe economic crisis they have as a leader someone as brilliant, capable and inspiring as Barack Obama.He has thus far lived up to his promise by picking a team to match his considerable talent.
All this talent and experience will not guarantee success, of course. Kennedy’s “best and brightest” gave America its Bay of Pigs debacle and near nuclear confrontation with Russia at the height of the Cold War.Later they bequeathed the Vietnam War.
There is one certainty however; corrupt and incompetent leaders are a sure recipe for the destruction of a society.Unfortunately that is what Malaysia has in abundance today.That thought is enough to depress me, as well as many Malaysians.
The more promising and enduring path to unity is not through politics, language, or culture but economics, more specifically the embrace of free enterprise.
I would have expected that socialism with its egalitarian ideals would be the best vehicle to bring Malaysians together. It failed, in Malaysia and elsewhere. Socialism failed to capture the imagination of Malays because of its association with atheistic communism. The MCP resorting to terrorism certainly did not help. Malays did not differentiate between socialism and communism, and equated both with Godlessness and Red China.
A legacy of colonial rule was the segregation of Malaysians at work and where they live. When economic crises occurred, they took on a racial hue very quickly. When there was a shortage of sugar, Malays would blame Chinese traders for hoarding and profiteering. Even a simple railway labor dispute could quickly degenerate along racial lines.
Today as a consequence of NEP, economic crises and labor disputes no longer have racial undertones. A remarkable but under appreciated achievement. The 1997 economic crisis had minimal racial repercussions despite the fact that many of the high-flying casualties were Malays. Likewise, the recent reduction in petroleum subsidy affected all: urban dwellers, taxi drivers, Malay fishermen, and those who use public transportation. The pain cut across race and class, economic imperatives successfully breaching racial boundaries.
The very visible Malay professional and middle class helped blur the perception of interracial inequities and discord. The emerging Malay business and trading class also introduced capitalism to the Malay masses. They began looking at others less as immigrants or non-Malays and more as potential customers, suppliers, and business partners. That contributes greatly to racial harmony.
Perversely, while a generation earlier NEP brought Malaysians together, today its successor policies further divide us. More consequentially, those policies, now severely corrupted and corroded, are no longer effective instruments for the betterment of Malays. They contribute to the polarization of Malays, between those who benefited from the largesse of the state and those left out.
Free enterprise and with it, free trade, is the best instrument to break down not only race barriers in Malaysia but also other artificial barriers globally. Capitalism does not differentiate between race, national origin, political persuasions, or religious beliefs. Profits are profits, whether they come from your own kind or foreigners.
The government is actively encouraging greater integration in the business sector, and if successful, that would enhance racial harmony. Unfortunately, the government’s usual highhanded ways are undermining this otherwise noble goal. For example, publicly listed companies must divest 30 percent of its equity to Bumiputras. This is fine if we let the market pick who those lucky Bumiputras would be. Instead that scheme has now degenerated into another corrupt-ridden political patronage system.
A more profitable approach, and thus likelier to succeed, would be for the government to explicitly use ownership and employee diversity as a criterion when awarding contracts and choosing vendors. American companies are realizing that workplace diversity has its own rewards, quite apart from being the right thing to do. American corporations are easily outbidding European and Japanese competitors in Africa because the executives they send there are mostly Blacks. The same in China, with American companies actively recruiting ethnic Chinese Americans.
The “mom and pop” retail sector in Malaysia is essentially in Chinese hands. They usually recruit their own kind. Such ethnic mom and pop operators, whether in Malaysia, Japan or America, are inefficient and their customers pay for the inefficiency. An effective way to discourage them and at the same time enjoy the benefits of having an efficient retail sector would be to open it to foreign competitors like Carrefour and Walmart. Carrefour has exemplary recruiting policies; it actively recruits capable Malays for its frontline as well as management positions. Unfortunately, instead of encouraging such multinational retailers with their enlightened personnel policies, the government is restricting them, no doubt through the influence of “money politics” (otherwise known as corruption) of UMNO politicians by these Chinese retailers.
Yes, Walmart has squeezed out many mom and pop stores in America, but American consumers enjoy “every day low prices!” Such mega chains have done much to contain inflation in America. Walmart and Carrefour are also very popular in China. Chinese consumers, like those elsewhere, want wide choices and lower prices. They could not care less who owns those outlets, “foreign devils” or their own kind.
Similarly with the small retail lending business; banks and finance companies ignore these customers with less-than-stellar credit history. They have no alternative but to go to pawnshops, Ah Longs, and chettiars with their usurious interest rates. They are also all exclusively non-Malay operations, right down to the goons they employ to collect their overdue payments. If Malaysia were to open up the market to foreign lenders like AIG that specializes in “sub-prime” loans, we would wipe out these chettiars and Ah Longs. Malaysia would definitely be a better society without them. AIG, like other American companies, have enlightened personnel policies. You can be assured that they would employ many Malays, certainly more than what the present ethnic moneylenders would. Those American lenders would be shrewd enough to employ many Malays as their customers would be mostly Malays.
If all else fails, UMNO and PAS could unite with a common purpose of boycotting those ethnic companies and establishments whose workers do not reflect the general Malaysian society. A few such high profile boycotts would change the employment and ownership patterns of Malaysian businesses far more effectively than any government mandate.
The free market is not only the most efficient economic system for producing goods and services but also the most effective tool to bring substantive social and cultural changes. Once Malaysians start looking at each other and the rest of the world not in terms of race or nationality but as potential customers, business partners, and sources of capital and expertise, peace and understanding would follow suit.
The Minister of Education will soon decide whether to continue the teaching of science and mathematics in English in our schools.That decision will not materially change the continuing decline in educational achievements of Malays.
This harsh reality is the consequence of our national schools – the default choice for most Malays – being abysmal failures.Most non-Malays as well as affluent Malays are fully aware of this and thus have long ago abandoned the system.Observe the steady stream of school buses and private cars full of young non-Malays heading south on the causeway every school-day morning.As for affluent Malays, ask where Najib Razak and Hishammuddin Hussein send their children for their education!
In today’s economy, the most advantaged are those with high science literacy and mathematical skills, as well as being fluent in more than one language, with one of those languages being English, the language of commerce and science.Fluency in English is no panacea of course; a visit to India and the Philippines will quickly disabuse us of that assumption.
The next most advantaged will be those fluent only in English.The least advantaged would be those literate in only one language, and that language is other than English. This unfortunately is the fate of Malays today.
While one could attain high levels of science literacy and mathematical skills without knowing English, that is true only if one’s primary language is Japanese, German, or any of the other already developed languages.It is not true for Swahili or Urdu.It is definitely not true for Malay, no matter how passionately our language nationalists assert to the contrary.Even with those Germans and Japanese, the crucial point often overlooked is that they are also literate in English.Japanese children for example, learn English right from kindergarten.
These educational deficiencies of Malays are long standing; they cannot be solved through expensive investments in facilities and personnel alone.
The problem is most critical, and equally most difficult to overcome, with rural Malays.The cultural, intellectual, language and other ambience at home and in the community are not conducive to these children lifting themselves out of their trapped environment.They need help desperately.To effectively do so, our leaders must be daring and exceptionally innovative; resorting to pat answers would not do our students justice.
English Schools in Rural Areas
In my earlier books I proposed setting up English schools in the kampongs.It makes sense to begin there as those Malays are the ones with the lowest proficiency in English, and thus would benefit most from such an initiative.With their already high usage of Malay at home and in the community, these pupils would not likely “forget” their native tongue if they were to attend these exclusively-English schools.
This is not a novel or risky social experiment, rather the resurrecting and improving of an old successful one.That was how Malays of my and earlier generations received our education. And as Tun Mahathir noted, we have not become any less Malay for the experience.Nor have we degenerated into “brown Mat Sallehs,” the expressed mortal fear of the nationalists.Indeed that was how those ardent defenders of Malay language as Nik Safiah and Hussein Ismail received their education and enhanced their intellectual development.Now they want to deny today’s young Malays – their grandchildren – the very same opportunities that they had enjoyed and benefited from.
While my proposal would be an improvement over the present system, there are problems with its implementation.Politically, there could be similar demands for such schools to be set up elsewhere, especially in areas where the background level of Malay in the community is low.Then we could potentially end up with situation akin to the bad colonial days where students would be fluent in English but at the expense of their proficiency in Malay.That would be unacceptable as Malay is now our national language.Further, it would divert resources and personnel away from rural areas, where the need is most desperate.
Then there is the ire of the nationalists.They would go ballistic seeing those village children heartily singing Baa Baa Black Sheep instead of Nyet Nyet Semut, fearing the cultural and other “polluting” influences on our young.Telling them that those children would continue singing our melodious Malay lullabies at home would not reassure these nationalists.
A more practical problem would be in getting good teachers to serve in rural areas, although this could be alleviated through generous incentives like higher bonuses and providing living quarters.Not readily surmountable would be that such schools would necessarily be small; hence their academic offerings would be limited.
English-language Islamic Schools
To bypass these problems, I propose setting up English-medium Islamic schools. Again I am not suggesting anything radical here, merely extending an already successful experiment.I am simply proposing that the successful formula of the International Islamic University (IIU) be extended down to the school level.
Like IIU, these Islamic schools would use English as the medium of instruction, be open to all, and teach religious as well as “secular” subjects.These schools could be set up anywhere, not just in rural areas.Consequently they could be in major towns and thus be of sufficient size to offer a varied and rich curriculum.
In fact IIU already has its Islamic School, also using English as the medium of instruction.Unfortunately its curriculum and pedagogical philosophy are more madrasah-like, the antithesis of a modern educational institution even though the school prepares its students for the GCE “A” examination.The emphasis at that school is on students learning the rituals of Islam and memorizing the Quran.I would prefer that those be done outside the classroom.
The Islamic school I have in mind would be modeled after the many excellent Christian – in particular Catholic – schools in America.Their academic standing is such that they are the first choice for many non-Christians, including Muslims.These schools are first and foremost academic institutions, concerned primarily with education.They are interested in making their students better citizens, not on producing future priests or on proselytizing.
These schools regularly matriculate their students to highly competitive universities to become engineers and doctors.Only a tiny fraction, if any, would end up in the clergy.Likewise, my version of Islamic schools would produce Malaysia’s future scientists and scholars.These schools are not meant to produce converts to Islam or turn students into ulama.
There are now many such Islamic schools in America, and their number is rapidly growing such that the University of California, Irvine, currently offers a teachers’ credentialing certificate in Islamic Education.Ultimately these schools would lead to the establishment of an English-medium Islamic University modeled after and of the caliber of Georgetown.Meaning, they would offer solid liberal education in a rigorous academic environment but with an Islamic ambience, akin to the Catholicism of Georgetown.
A more local but historical model of my Islamic school would be our old missionary schools.They did a credible job in educating many Malaysians, including our present Minister of Education Hishammuddin.Just substitute their Christianity for Islam.
English-medium Islamic schools in Malaysia would overcome many of the problems associated with my earlier suggestion of having English schools in rural areas.For one, such schools could be set up in urban areas and thus be of sufficient size to offer a rich and varied curriculum.There would also be fewer difficulties in recruiting teachers.
While English would be the medium of instruction, Arabic (and with it jawi) would be taught as a second language.Islamic Studies would be taught in English, but the emphasis there should be on teaching it as an academic subject, not as theology.
In a typical seven-period day, one period would be devoted to Arabic and another to Islamic Studies.The remaining five would be for regular or “secular” subjects, including English, science, and mathematics.Science and mathematics would be taught as per the current understanding, and not as some presumed “Islamic” variant.The curriculum must include the performing arts, and the extracurricular programs robust and varied to include sports.
The emphasis should be on solid liberal education and critical thinking.Literature for example would be taught not only as a means of learning the language but also to develop the students’ critical faculties, as per Louise Rosenblatt’s “Literature as Exploration” philosophy.Students would be discussing Shakespeare’s sonnets as well as Rumi’s rhymes.
Using English would go a long way in disabusing Malays of the negative psychological connotation associated with learning that language.We would no longer view English as the language of colonials and infidels but as a necessary intellectual tool.For another, such schools would truly educate their students, teaching them to think critically as well as imparting to them modern skills and knowledge.Far too often what goes on in existing Islamic schools is nothing more than indoctrination – masquerading as education.
Properly executed, these schools would attract students from abroad, especially the Middle East.These schools could be viable business investments as well as contribute to making Malaysia an educational hub.
Since these schools are open to all, they should get state support.There is precedent for this; the old Christian missionary schools also received governmental funding.Additionally such schools should get a generous slice of the huge zakat and wakaf endowments.I would also impose a surcharge of RM100 for every Hajj and umrah ticket towards funding these schools.
As can be readily seen, my version of the Islamic school is very different from the current Sekolah Kebangsaan Agama (SKA).Apart from differences in admission policy and language of instruction (SKA admits only Muslims and uses Malay), there would also be profound differences in mission and teaching philosophy.SKA aspires to nurture future pendakwah (missionaries), and like IIU’s version, is more madrasah than a modern educational institution.
My proposal transcends politics; it is also be a splendid way to initiate conversations between Malay leaders in the various parties for the betterment of our people.This dialogue is desperately needed as our leaders are determined to go their separate and divisive ways.They seem intent on erasing any commonality of objectives in the relentless pursuit of their political goals.
English-medium Islamic schools may prove to be the effective avenue to propel Malays up the educational ladder.The Islamic imprimatur always sells.Our language nationalists would not dare oppose such schools even if English were to be the medium of instruction.We should capitalize on this.These schools could be the salvation for Malays, just as Catholic schools were for impoverished and marginalized Irish immigrants in America at the turn of the last century.
These are the issues I expect Hishammuddin and his senior officers at the Ministry of Education to deliberate on, not flip flopping on major policies.That they are not doing so is a gross dereliction of duty.Unfortunately it is our young who bear the terrible burden of this negligence.
Visitors to Malaysia see the various distinctive cultures and may conclude that the Malaysian experiment is not working. Far from it! Malaysians are proud of their individual heritage as Malays, Chinese, and Indians, but beneath those obvious differences is a common Malaysian identity. You see this manifested most obviously when Malaysians are abroad.
To be sure, this sense of shared identity is weakening. The reasons are many, but contrary to the common belief, race-based politics and political parties are not the cause. Many would argue that if only the political parties were not based on race, racial integration would be greatly enhanced.
I too wish that politicians would not blatantly pander to racial sentiments. However, I would argue the contrary; race-based political parties contribute to racial harmony. They ensure that minorities like the Indians and the smaller tribes in Sabah and Sarawak are represented in Parliament and the Government. An Indian could never hope to win a parliamentary seat let alone be a minister as there is no predominantly Indian constituency. There are Indian cabinet ministers and Members of Parliament only because the Indian parties are in the ruling coalition.
Race-based parties or not, with increasing racial integration, politicians realize that to get elected and secure political power they must reach beyond their own racial group. In the last elections, even PAS was actively courting Chinese and Indian voters. At its annual Muktamar (convention) in June 2006, PAS adopted a resolution allowing for non-Muslim members and candidates for elections, a stunning admission of this reality.
In America, Congress and state legislatures go to great length to carve constituencies that would ensure predominant Black, Hispanic, Republican or Democratic voters. Such gerrymandering often results in grotesque and geographically unwieldy constituencies. At least the Malaysian formula is more transparent, and therefore more democratic. More importantly, it works! By coming together in a coalition, the race-based parties have ensured that political power is equitably shared on an agreed-upon formula, and that no minority group is politically marginalized.
Percentage-wise, there are more Malays in Singapore than there are Indians in Malaysia. Thanks to the Malaysian model, Indians are more visible in the upper political reaches in Malaysia then Malays are in Singapore. This bleak picture is repeated elsewhere in the region. Malays are a significant minority in Thailand (in the south they are the majority), but one would not know that from looking at the political establishment in that country; likewise with the Muslims in the Philippines. Yet those leaders could not comprehend why they have strong secessionist movements within their midst! They should learn from Malaysia.
The solution to Malaysia’s race issues lies not with doing away with the present workable and successful formula of race-based political parties but to build upon it. There should be increased collaborations and consultations among the leaders so that they are seen to be working together. They should be leading their members towards thinking for the good of the nation and not, as at present, pandering to the most extremist and chauvinistic of their followers. Far too often, the surest way for an UMNO candidate to win party votes is to champion the Malay cause. The most blatant and ugliest was demonstrated when UMNO Youth leader and Education Minister Hishamuddin infamously brandished his ketchup-dripping keris (dagger) to demonstrate his resolve to be a latter-day Hang Tuah.
Leaders of the other parties in the ruling coalition are just as irresponsible. In February 2006, ten non-Muslim ministers took the unprecedented move of sending Prime Minister Abdullah an open memorandum expressing their disagreement with some aspects of Federal law that were already passed by Parliament, and thus by them. Where were they during the drafting and debating? If leaders cannot work together, there is little expectation that their followers could or would. If those ministers felt very strongly, they should have resigned. In the end they were forced to humiliate themselves publicly by withdrawing the memorandum. Little effect, as the damage had been done.
The naïve belief—if only the political parties were to transcend race they would bring Malaysians together—has not been proven by experience. During colonial times, the rallying cry of the Malaysian Communist Party (MCP) and other left-wing parties was merdeka (independence) and social equity. Race was not their defining character. Despite that, the MCP remained almost exclusively Chinese. Its leadership was concerned primarily with making Malaysia a province of Red China, as stated in some ancient Chinese texts. Only the socialist parties transcended race and had truly multiracial membership, yet they remained ignored by the voters.
The Gerakan (Action) Party, a breakaway element of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) too began bravely by proclaiming to be multiracial. At best it had a sprinkling of non-Chinese members at the beginning; today it is exclusively Chinese.
The latest foray into the multiracial experiment is Keadilan (Justice) Party. An outgrowth of the reformasi (reformation) movement triggered by the sacking of then Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. It had greater promise. It attracted Malaysians of all races who were fed up with the authoritarian tendencies of the Mahathir administration. More encouragingly, it galvanized the young. Keadilan made an impressive debut in 1999, winning four federal seats. Unfortunately it was downhill from thereon. In the last (2004) elections, its leader, Wan Azizah (Anwar Ibrahim’s wife), barely squeaked through the only seat the party had won.
Today Keadilan has the occasional non-Malay members who still subscribe to its multiracial reform ideals. Until Anwar was released from prison in 2004, the party would be more accurately referred to as the Free Anwar Party because of its obsession with his release from prison. Now that Anwar is free, the party is fast disintegrating, with no cause to sustain it. The process has already begun with its merger with the socialist Party Rakyat, an ignoble end to a noble experiment.
The stark reality is that race remains a major factor in the political calculus, and will remain so for a long while. Malaysia ignores this at its peril. Better that Malaysians acknowledge this fact and work on improving it instead of dreaming of some unworkable utopian arrangement. Even in mature democracies like America, race is never far from the political considerations.