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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, March 25, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #96

Chapter 13: Deteriorating Institutions

Islamic Institutions

Increasing Islamization of public institutions has consequences for both Muslim and non-Muslim Malaysians. As indicated earlier, the expansion of the Islamic establishment absorbs Malay talent and resources at the expense of other pursuits. Hence the concomitant decline in Malay participation in the economy, sciences and technology. This causal link has yet to register on Malay leaders. As Malays become more preoccupied with religion, by default the productive economic activities will fall increasingly on non-Muslims.

The mounting intrusiveness and fundamentalism of the Islamic establishment drive Malays away from their faith. Many do not wish to have their wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers be treated in the “Islamic” way as perceived by the Talibans. In Saudi Arabia, the model state for the Islamists, women are not allowed to drive or be out by themselves. They could be divorced simply with their husbands’ sending them short-text messaging on their cell phones. Seventh century culture co-existing with modernity! These Islamists are obsessed with turning Malaysia into seventh century Bedouin society.

As Islam has a special place in the Malay psyche, every leader is exploiting Islam to further his personal and political goals. Civil servants outdo each other in embellishing their Islamic credentials in order to advance their career. Instead of taking senior management courses or continuing professional education to enhance their skills and professionalism, they opt for postgraduate diplomas in Islam.

Politicians willingly ride the Islamic tiger in order to corral votes. The Islamic party PAS was very successful, encouraging UMNO to follow suit. Former Prime Minister Mahathir too rode the Islamic tiger; he got more than he bargained for. He could barely dismount. Today, the Islamists treat him with contempt. With the bureaucratization of Islam, the religion has become less a personal faith and more a massive bureaucracy. Imams are less spiritual leaders, more pompous bureaucrats. They have become the arms and eyes of the state. Many brandish their secular titles with flourish, and like the other civil servants, become corrupt. Hence the epithet Imam Duit (Cash Imam) applied to the Imam of the National Mosque. That should be a very prestigious appointment, reserved for the most pious and religious. This particular Imam Duit went on to contest the Federal elections of 2004 as an UMNO candidate and lost! That says volumes of the community standing of these modern political imams.

As there is no conceivable way to reform the Islamic establishment, I would simply get rid of it. This is not anti-Islam. The Islamic bureaucracy has nothing to do with Islam, rather it is another powerful political constituency bent on preserving its dependency on and privileged links to the government. The clergy and royalty classes share this same interest; the former uses religion to further its aims and buttress its position; the latter, our culture and traditions. Stripped off their cover, they are like any other interest groups, except for the fact that they are powerful and hide behind equally powerful emotional and cultural symbols.

America is a secular society and has no Department of Religion, yet Americans remain religious. Islam thrives in America; it is one of the fastest growing faiths, with no government help, thank you.

There was no Islamic bureaucracy during colonial times, yet there was no indication that Malays were any less Islamic, less religious, or less pious then they are today. In fact, the reverse is true. Divorce, child and spousal abuses, incest, drug addiction and other indicators of social dysfunction disproportionately afflict Malays today than in years past. More significantly, more Malays today are openly contemplating deserting their faith, an idea unheard of a generation or two earlier.

All these are happening with the greater emphasis on and massive expansion of the Islamic establishment. It is time to reverse course. Liberate Islam to where it rightly belongs: in the hearts of Muslims, not in government offices. It may well take someone with the Islamic credentials of Abdullah Badawi to tame the Islamic establishment, just as it took a conservative Republican President with proven anticommunist convictions like Nixon to initiate relations with China.

In later chapters (18 and 19) I will elaborate on how Malaysia could leverage its unique position to lead the Islamic world towards modernization, and to play the crucial role of bridging the West with the Islamic world.


Institutions of Politics

Malaysia addresses its race problems head on. It recognizes that issues of race are never far from the citizens’ consciousness, and acknowledges this fully by having explicit race-based political parties.

America does not have race-based political parties and has to resort to grotesque gerrymandering to ensure minority representations in Congress. In the Senate, representation is by entire state and since no state has a majority of Blacks or minorities (except possibly Hawaii), the US Senate is almost exclusively White. If not for gerrymandering, so would the House of Representatives. The District of Columbia has a majority of Black voters. Their quest for Senate representation has been stymied even though (or perhaps because) that would ensure at least two Black senators.

The Malaysian senate in contrast is not elected but appointed and counts among its members an Orang Asli (Aboriginal), a Portuguese minority, plus representatives from the small tribes in East Malaysia. The appointed Malaysian senate is more representative of Malaysians than the elected American senate is of Americans. Chalk one up for Malaysia!

Malaysia’s race-based parties work well because their leaders are aware of their obligations and responsibilities beyond their party members. While they do resort to chauvinistic exhortations especially during their parties’ elections in order to be seen as champions of their respective races, nonetheless sober reality soon returns. There is always the danger that these leaders could get carried away and egg their followers to extremes, as had happened in1969. Extremist leaders do get voted in, sometimes to very high positions. Nonetheless the members wisely draw the line and thus far, those elected to the very top slots have been those who have shown their ability to accommodate the other races. The shrill politicians do eventually get sidelined, thanks to the collective wisdom of the voters.

There are exceptions, of course. Lim Kit Siang, leader of the predominantly Chinese Democratic Action Party, takes perverse pleasure in taunting Malays. Yet he is the perennial leader of the DAP. No surprise that his party remains marginalized in the greater scheme of things. No Malay would even consider voting him as dogcatcher. Likewise with leaders of the Islamic Party, PAS; at least they are finally getting it and are now trying hard to tone down their racist core by wrapping themselves around the universal message of Islam.

In the ideal world, having non raced-based political parties is the way to go. However, we are not living in one; for now the Malaysian formula seems to work. We should focus on refining and enhancing an already workable system.


Next: Environmental, Regional, and Global Challenges

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