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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.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Saya Pun Melayu. Me Too!

Saya Pun Melayu! Me Too!
M. Bakri Musa


Book Review: Saya Pun Melayu (I Am Also A Malay)
Foreword by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.
ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, 2009. 312 pages. RM 35.00


The Annual UMNO General Assembly is also the season for the release of new books on local politics written in Malay. It must be a profitable venue and time, for the number of new titles keeps growing each year.

Foreigners may mistake this to reflect a healthy intellectual discourse, or at least a vigorous political debate. The reality however, is far different. With such titillating titles as “50 Dalil Mengapa XYZ Tidak Layak …” (Fifty Reason s Why XYZ Is Unfit For … ) and the promiscuous use of “half-past six English,” this “genre” poisons the political atmosphere, quite apart from degrading our national language.

As for content, these books are nothing more than warong kopi (coffee shop) gossips transcribed. Observers and political scientists hoping to gain an insight on Malaysian politics would do well to avoid these books. And they have. These books will never be cited in reputable publications or quoted by respected commentators.

Enter Zaid Ibrahim’s Saya Pun Melayu (I Am Also A Malay). It too was released to coincide with the recent UMNO General Assembly. There the similarity ends. This gem of a diamond sparkles with insights and wisdom. Like a diamond, this book too has innumerable multifaceted sharp edges that cut through rock-headed politicians. I would be insulting Zaid if I were to compare his thoughtful and well written book to the thrash that littered the hallways of Dewan Merdeka, where the recent Assembly took place.


Greater Impact Than The Malay Dilemma

A more appropriate comparison would be Mahathir’s The Malay Dilemma, written some 40 years ago and also at a time when UMNO and Malays were going through a critical crisis. This book will have an even greater impact than The Malay Dilemma.

Like Mahathir’s, the first run of this book quickly sold out, but unlike Mahathir’s, this book has not been banned. This is not due to any greater enlightenment on the part of the authorities today, rather a tribute to Zaid’s skillful and subtle approach. Whereas Mahathir is frontal and polemical, meant more to shock if not insult readers, Zaid, ever the accomplished corporate lawyer, takes a softer and polite approach. In contrast to Mahathir’s anger and indignant rhetoric, Zaid is more sorrowful and disappointment over UMNO’s current malaise. Zaid persuades us with his rational arguments; Mahathir barrages us with his accusations. Mahathir caters to our baser emotions and sense of victimization; Zaid to our intellect and pristine values of our culture.

Our culture goes for Zaid’s halus ways, of subtleties and obliqueness. Thus he is devastatingly effective, as for example in upbraiding his former cabinet colleagues who are lawyers. Rais Yatim, Syed Hamid Albar, Hishammuddin Hussein, and Azalina Othman, among others, are chastised for failing to live up to their professional ethics and obligations as shown by their disrespect for the due process of law and basic human rights. In Malay, Zaid’s polite criticisms are very damning. It would be difficult to maintain this tone with this style had the book been written in English. The translator should ponder this point.

The book is in three parts. The first is the author’s reflection on and prescription for our nation’s current predicaments. Zaid tackles such “hot” issues as Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony), the rule of law, and the role of the monarchy in a democracy. It also includes his very brief tenure as Abdullah Badawi’s Law Minister.

The second is a brief memoir of sorts where he traced his humble origin in a village deep in Ulu Kelantan to become a highly successful corporate attorney who created the nation’s largest law firm. It also includes his tenure in UMNO politics and his current philanthropic works, where he has been recognized by Forbes magazines as Asia’s Inaugural Heroes of Philanthropy. The last part contains short profiles of Malaysians he admires (which includes former Chief Justice Salleh Abbas), his hopes on the future of Malays, and the current state of Malay, specifically UMNO, politics.


UMNO No Longer Represents Malays

One could be readily excused in assuming that those rent-seeking, keris-brandishing, and race-taunting types that infest UMNO represent the best if not the essence of the Malay race. Or that the angry menacing Mat Rempits, the jungle version of Hell’s Angels so eagerly being embraced by UMNO Youth, are the future of Malays.

Zaid’s ideas and approaches are the antithesis of UMNO’s. In deliberately choosing the simple title, Zaid is emphasizing that his is also a legitimate if not the prevailing viewpoint. To me, Zaid represents more of the essence of Malayness while those corrupt pseudo modernized UMNO types just happen to be Malays. They are the ones who soil our culture and give it a bad odor.

Zaid writes teasingly that he has already set a record of sorts by being the shortest serving cabinet minister! Here is another observation also worthy of the record books. He is the only minister whose reputation is enhanced on leaving office! Not to belittle Zaid’s own fine personal qualities and considerable achievements, that says a lot on the caliber of people leading Malaysia today!

Zaid takes to task UMNO leaders for presuming to speak on behalf of all Malays. It is clear now that they do not. In the chapter “Masa Depan Melayu” (The Future of Malays) in Part III, Zaid suggests that Malays must be outward looking, willing to learn from others, and not be obsessed with empty slogans like Ketuanan Melayu. The road to Ketuanan Melayu, he writes, is not by shouting your lungs out at every gathering, rather through diligence, hard work, and most of all, superior education.

Zaid relates his experience as a university student leader on a three-month trip to America visiting the top campuses (“Memburu Cita Cita, (Pursuing You Dreams) Chapter 8 Part II). This was in the 1970s, the height of the anti-Vietnam protests. He was struck that even though America was at war its government was still tolerant of dissent.

Decades later as Abdullah’s Law Minister, he was appalled when the government he was a part of detained dissenters like Raja Petra and Teresa Kok under the ISA. Not surprisingly, Zaid’s departure from the cabinet soon followed.

I have met many Malaysians who have lived for many years in America and yet miss this important aspect of American exceptionalism. Their America is the shopping malls, porno shops, and blighted downtowns.

Zaid’s ideas and observations resonate with me, as well as many Malaysians. Hear is the voice of a successful Malay professional and a member of the political elite. That he now quits UMNO is a loss for it but a gain for Malaysia. Another blessing is that he is now free to pursue his philanthropic works as well as his involvement in NGOs. And being an effective critic of the government!

To me the most valuable part of the book is his brief memoir (Part II). Zaid clearly subscribes early to the values he writes about. His divorced father took him away from the village to live with him in Kota Baru where he could attend an English school (Sultan Ismail College). When he reached secondary level he felt the urge to leave, to see the greater world beyond.

He chose English College in Johor Baru, at the very opposite end of the peninsula. The school however accepts new students only if their families were transferred there. So he wrote to the principal stating that indeed he had a “family” (his distant cousin) transferred to the Army base there. His father willingly signed the letter for him and supported his decision.

Unlike in Kota Baru where his classmates were almost exclusively Malays, down there he had an environment more reflective of Malaysia. From there he went on to Sekolah Tun Razak in Ipoh for his Form Six, where he excelled in debates, and then to UiTM for his law studies.

Except for about seven months in London at one of the Inns to qualify for the Bar, and the earlier trip to America, Zaid spent his formative years in Malaysia. It is remarkable that he could have such an open and receptive attitude. We have many who spent years at the best British universities only to return quickly to their old kampong mentality upon coming home.

Zaid has what the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck refers to as a “growth mindset,” in contrast to a “fixed mindset.” Those with the growth mindset believe that their fate is dependent on how adaptive they are in seizing opportunities, and on their ability to grow and gain from their experiences. They do not believe that their fate is dependent on what nature had bestowed upon them, the benevolence of some remote emperor, or what had been written in the book of life. The “fixed mindset” view their talent and ability as fixed, and that their lot in life is ultimately tied to their innate nature, especially their intelligence and ‘giftedness.’

Zaid is always learning from others and improving on what they had done. He writes of his early experience articling in a prestigious law firm where he was offered a position. That was definitely a career coup, a young lawyer’s dream. What soured it were the whisperings among his colleagues that he was offered simply because the firm wanted to increase its Malay representation. After much soul searching, Zaid declined the offer. That must have shocked those senior partners. Another “dumb” Malay refusing to seize opportunities, they must have thought!

Zaid too must have questioned himself a thousand times in the years following that tough decision, especially when he had difficulty trying to borrow from MARA (a measly RM25,000.00) to start his own firm. In the end, he created ZICO, a law firm that easily bested the one where he articled. Not only is it the largest, it is also one of the few that could handle the complex needs of multinational corporations, and the first to venture abroad.

That is where a growth mindset could lead you.

Going back to MARA, an institution I am a never a fan of, Zaid relates an incident visiting his alma mater soon after being appointed Law Minister. He wanted to spend a few minutes to give the students a “pep talk.” On the appointed day, he was surprised by the overflowing crowd. Then as is typical, the Vice Chancellor, one Ibrahim Abu Shah (a “Dato’ Seri Prof. Dr.” no less!) hogged all the allotted time, pouring embarrassingly effusive praises on Zaid. He was left with a scant few minutes!

A few months later, after Zaid resigned as a minister and gave his talk at the Asean Law Forum where he challenged the wisdom of Ketuanan Melayu, that same Ibrahim called Zaid a traitor to our race! As Zaid says, our intellectuals are also now speaking like politicians. Zaid may not realize this; they do so because they are essentially politicians who happen to wear academic robes. Scholars and intellectuals they are not.

I wish all Malaysians would read this book. Our policy makers would benefit more from reading this instead of the World Bank’s dense treatises on rural poverty. The tribulations of his childhood that Zaid so well described are still very much the reality today for a vast number of young Malays. Zaid was fortunate in that his father saw the value of a good education. Many parents are trapped between needing their children to work to lessen the family’s burden and going to school. If our government were to adopt programs like Mexico’s Progresa where parents are being paid for keeping their children in school, then we would help those parents make the right decision that would benefit them and the nation in the long term.

If UMNO members and leaders were to read this volume they might just be disabused of their delusion of Ketuanan Melayu and ethnocentric mindset. On the other hand they might not like it when they realize their own stupidities. For young Malays, Zaid is an aspiration, of what is within their grasp if only they could see through the fraud of Ketuanan Melayu that is being perpetrated upon them. For non-Malays, this book might just erase some of their negative stereotypes of Malays they harbor.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book not only because of the remarkable personal story but also for the style of writing. Malays writers writing in Malay (and often also in English) tend to use non-declarative sentences. Thus instead of saying, “I like vanilla ice cream!” they would write, “On matters of ice cream taste, I like vanilla!” The latter takes nearly twice as many words, and the reader also has to shift gears. Very irritating!

This book is a valuable contribution to the political discourse, and it comes at a time when it is badly needed. Rest assured that this book will be talked about for years.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

apa kabar?

Boleh terangkan mengenai " MARA, an institution I am a never a fan "

saya adalah lulusan MARA dan jika tidak ada MARA, saya tidak mungkin mampu untuk melanjutkan pelajaran saya pada ketika itu.

9:07 PM  

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