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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, August 12, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #116

Chapter 17: Granting Malaysians Their Merdeka

Transitioning to the Creative Phase


The next leap in development—transiting to the creative stage—would require completely different sets of skills, leadership, and cultural values. More of the same would not do it. Simply focusing on more development, more education, more nationalism, and more religion would not suffice.

With subsistent living, group solidarity is premium, with the world being a simple dichotomous “us” versus “them.” The “them” is the harsh reality out there or the other groups competing for the same and presumed limited bounty. There is little room or appreciation for individuality, and expressions of it are neither appreciated nor tolerated. This cultural trait persists in the material phase.

With the creative phase, the individual is premium; we value each individual in his or her own right as a member of society and humanity. This relative supremacy of the individual over the group is the essence of the humanist movement that began in the 18th century. Then it was a manifestation of the reactions against the excesses of the Church. The movement was thus secular or even antireligious, but its essence remains the upholding of the basic dignity of the individual. The remarkable advances of the West since then are attributed in part to this recognition of the supreme value and dignity of the individual, a premise the very opposite of feudalism. It is individuals who are responsible for the advances of human society through their ideas and works.

If we treat Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as a historical figure, his achievements are monumental. He initiated a momentous social and cultural transformation of his society, and later, the region and the world. He, not the Bedouin clan council, emancipated the Arabs. His tribal leaders wanted to kill him, so radical were his ideas. To Muslims of course he was doing God’s work, being the recipient of His revelations.

When our hunter-gatherer ancestors decided to settle down and become farmers, one person bravely made that decision to defy tradition. He was successful, and his ideas were copied, amplified, and modified by others. Generations later, we graduated to becoming farmers.

It was John Calvin who viewed the concept of predestination from a totally different perspective, and in so doing gave rise to the legendary Protestant work ethics. From there, Adam Smith gave the concept of free enterprise and the “invisible hand” of the economy.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Karl Marx gave a totally different perception, based on the human yearnings for egalitarianism. His socialistic ideals were based on the precept of “each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities.” It was a necessary countervailing force to tame the ‘greediness’ of individuals and blunt the resultant inequalities. Again, the great ideas of socialism, like other great ideas, are the consequence of individuals, not of committees or organizations.

To launch into the next stage of development, Malaysia must focus on the individual. It is fitting that this creative phase also coincides with the K-economy, with its emphasis on the quality of the human capital, meaning individual citizens. This quality is reflected in their individual talent, skills and knowledge.

Citizens: Asset Versus Liability

America spends considerable resources educating and training the mentally and physically challenged. There are also rules preventing discrimination against them. America has good reasons for doing so.

An individual is either an asset to society, or by default a liability. One either contributes to or is dependent upon society; there is no neutral zone. Training the physically and mentally handicapped would shift them from the liability to the asset column. The state would then no longer have to expend resources to take care of them, on the contrary it would benefit from their productive work. The handicapped too would benefit because of the resultant heightened sense of self-respect from not being dependent on the state.

The state must foster among its citizens—the able as well as the disabled—an attitude of being not dependent of the state. They must be merdeka (free). Instead of being dependent on the state, develop the talent of citizens so the state would now have to depend on them.

If you were a talented scientist or successful entrepreneur, the state would benefit from your skills. Any state would then want you. Canada gladly grants permanent visas to the talented and those who bring in substantial investments. American lawmakers suggest granting foreign students who have PhDs in the sciences automatic permanent resident status. These countries value talent. Malaysia is belatedly recognizing this, and is now actively enticing its citizens abroad to return.

You can tell much about a culture by how it treats its gifted and its producers. They are the ones who would contribute to society and elevate it to greater heights. At the same time, these individuals by their nature are unlikely to accept the status quo; they are apt to challenge it. The meek, obedient, and those easily satisfied are not likely to effect changes. On the contrary, they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo; they are comfortable with it.

It is for this reason that I am pessimistic on Indonesia. Its gifted writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer is widely lauded abroad, with his books translated into nearly 40 languages, but the Indonesians see fit to ban his works. Likewise with Malay society; peruse the royal award lists. Very few Malay scientists, writers, artists, or entrepreneurs are honored. The same pattern emerges with the list of honorary degrees and honors awarded by public universities. The esteemed title of Professor Emeritus is rarely given to a retiring scientist, physician, or engineer. Yet our leaders and society keep harping on how much we need and value such individuals. Even when Malay society produces the occasional free thinkers, they would be ostracized or worse, jailed. Consider the plight of Kassim Ahmad and Syed Hussein Ali, among others.

Humans would have remained the nomadic hunter-gatherers had not some rebellious soul decided that he had enough of the wandering life and decided to stay put and tried his hands at gathering and cultivating. That was a momentous decision; it must have shaken the foundation of that ancient clan. From that fateful moment, through gradual evolution and enhancement we evolved into our modern society.

To be sure, there are cultures today that believe they thrive on that ancient hunter-gatherer mode; they have no compulsion to settle down. The Penans in Borneo apparently are very happy with this way of life, if we can believe their interlocutors, the Western anthropologists and activists who slip in and out of the Penans’ community. What those Penans have not realized is that their champions in the West can easily escape and luxuriate in the comfort of their suburban homes, while the Penans are stuck in that fetid humid jungle. I do not expect any invention or innovation that would benefit mankind to come from that culture. They may have some valuable knowledge of medical herbs and roots; nonetheless they would need modern expertise to develop and market them.

The preoccupation of today’s Malay leaders is that we should emulate the Chinese. They are held up as the model. There are a number of fallacies with that assumption.

First, the Chinese diasporas generally and those in Malaysia specifically are a self-select group. They represent only a tiny (and an atypical fraction at that) of the Chinese race and culture, the bulk of which still live in China. There are not many who are enamored with those values on the mainland. Those values are what kept the masses of Chinese subjugated and impoverished. The economic transformation of China is very recent, occurring only in the last few decades since Mao’s death. There is no assurance that it would last.

The “good” Chinese, like members of the Imperial family and the mandarin class, remained in China. They had no need to emigrate; they were comfortable with the status quo. The overseas Chinese share traits more in common with emigrants everywhere, regardless of race, color, or religion.

In Malaysia and elsewhere, the successful Chinese are those who subscribe not to Chinese values rather to Western ones. Lee Kuan Yew’s parents were smart enough not to send their children to China but to Britain. Lee himself, despite his public profession of fondness for Confucian values, did the same for his children. When Malay leaders continually harp on their followers to emulate the Chinese, they must be careful on what exactly are the values worthy of emulation, certainly not the clannishness or blind obedience to authority and emperor. Those Chinese who dared to leave China then were those who did not trust their emperor, government, or leaders. They chose to be free, and be as far away as possible from their emperor, by emigrating.

Malay leaders should hold as models those who have minimal tolerance for the status quo and who are willing to risk change. Such individuals are found in all societies, from the illiterate coolies in Canton fed up from being preyed upon by their rapacious warlords and thus uprooted themselves by leaving China, to the starving Irish potato farmers who believed that their privation was not by divine design for the meek to inherit the earth rather for them to change their fate by leaving Ireland.

Such models are also readily available though rarely heralded in Malay society. I am eternally grateful to my grandfather for his courage to leave the warmth of his friends and family, and the familiar surroundings of his destitute village in Sumatra, to cross the Strait of Malacca. My brothers and sisters owe an immense debt of gratitude to our parents who dared buck tradition and social pressure by sending us to English schools. I am forever grateful that later when I chose a life path other than what my parents had anticipated for me, they (bless their souls) did not lay a guilt trip on me. On the contrary, they accepted my decision and gave it their parental blessings. That individuals as my grandfather, parents, and countless others like them are not honored and held as models is a loss not for them and me but for Malay society.


Next: Individual and the State

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