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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.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #121

Chapter 18: Beacon for the Malay World
Malaysian Malays’ Competitiveness


The most important contributing factor to the relative competitiveness of Malays in Malaysia as compared to their brethrens elsewhere is that we (especially those from the Federated States of the old Malaya) have been exposed to and are welcoming of other cultures and ideas. We have also not hesitated in adopting these alien values when they suited us. This trait should prepare us well for globalization. Unfortunately, recent trends are undermining this.

When the Hindus reached the Malay Peninsula, our animist ancestors readily adopted that belief system. Later, when Muslim traders brought Islam, we found that much more to our liking, and we effortlessly grafted it over our then existing Hindu beliefs. Those traders brought Islam as well as the jawi Arabic script, and thus a written culture to Malays. Whenever a society emerges from the oral tradition into the written word, it represents a quantum leap in intellectual progress. It opens the culture to new vistas. That was the greatest gift those early Muslim traders brought, apart from Islam.

Although they introduced the written culture into the Malay world, the books and literature those traders brought with them dealt primarily with religious matters. They did not see fit to bring along the voluminous Muslim treatises on science, mathematics, and philosophy. Nor did they pass onto Malays their skills as traders. Consequently the lessons Malays learned from those Muslim traders were heavy on theology and on preparing for life in the Hereafter but light on worldly subjects. Perhaps those traders thought that Malays would learn trading and other worldly activities simply by partaking in them alongside those traders.

Later came the Europeans. Unlike the Muslims who came as traders, the Dutch and Portuguese came as bumbling colonizers and did not endear themselves to the natives. The British who came next were much smoother and sophisticated. They flattered the Malay sultans with titles and sweet-talked them into becoming their “advisors.” They also gave the sultans princely (at that time) allowances, in effect bribing them. The British ended up more than simply advising, they effectively ruled the country while the sultans indulged themselves with whatever their civil allowances allowed them to do. The British gained more than what they had ever dreamed of acquiring. The Sultan of Johore willingly parted with a valuable piece of real estate, Singapore, in return for an embellished knightship and a perfunctory dinner at Buckingham Palace. Perfunctory because Malay sultans had yet to acquire the taste for roast beef; anything without sambal (chili paste) is tasteless to them.

That would not be the first time that a Malay leader would give away the store, all in the name of kindness, courtesy, and in search of praise. Fast-forward to today, sultan-wannabe Abdullah Badawi, basking in the glowing praises from Singapore’s leaders, is willing to sell to that island pieces of Malaysian to help with the republic’s effort in filling the strait separating the island from Malaysia.

The Malay experience under the British was not all bad especially when compared to the earlier Dutch and Portuguese rule, or the Indonesians under the Dutch. To their enduring credit, the British were better at preparing Malays for the realties of the modern world. They built schools, introduced modern administration to the Malay kerajaan (system of governance, such as it was), and abolished some (but not all) of the blatantly feudal aspects of Malay culture like slavery and indentured labor. Malays learned and adapted fast. Had we not done so, the British were more than willing to bring in hordes of the hungry from China and India. In the end the British did it anyway.

Thanks to the British, Malays became politically conscious and adept. As the traditional hereditary leaders like the sultans had been totally co-opted by the British, Malays had to develop new leaders from outside the palaces and courts. Malays also began equipping themselves with the necessary skills needed to survive in this world. Religious schools were no longer the only choice for Malays; many sent their children to secular English schools. Malays had to adapt fast lest they would be left behind.

By this reckoning, Singapore Malays should be the most competitive. In many ways, they are. Their per capita income and educational achievements surpass other Malays in the region, but compared to their fellow citizens, they still lag behind.

This is so because their government, being predominantly Chinese with their essentially dog-eat-dog Confucian ethics, does not have the willingness or capacity to nurture its lagging minority. In contrast, the Anglo-Saxon culture and ethics are far more egalitarian and nurturing. It is this that made the British institute special privileges for Malays in Malaysia. Essentially Anglo-Saxon America also has affirmative action programs for Blacks and other disadvantaged minorities. As a result, America today has no shortages of minority candidates for cabinet and other senior appointments. In contrast, China has significant minority groups that are marginalized; it is just not in the Chinese culture to help those less fortunate, especially those outside their clan or race. The Chinese government could not care less even if those marginalized were their own kind, much less if they were of different ethnicity. China today faces serious threats to its social stability because of the widening socio-economic gaps not only within the dominant Hans ethic group but also with its minorities.

The Singapore Chinese leaders, their Cambridge and Harvard education notwithstanding, behave no differently than their kin on the mainland; hence the treatment of their Malay minority.

Recent trends among Malays are worrying. We are moving away from this receptiveness to new ideas and values. Part of this reflects the greater conservative Arabism movement masquerading as an Islamist one that is enrapturing Malays. To them, Taliban Afghanistan represents the highest ideal of Islam. They are enamored with Arabic values, in particular, the conservatism and insularity. They feel that they have no need to learn from anyone else, least of all the infidels. Instead, all they have to do is merely look back and relearn the lessons of their glorious past. Imperial China also had that same insularity. If only those Malays would pause and reflect, they would realize that those Arabs are much further behind. If anything, the Arabs should be emulating Malays, not us them.

The second factor contributing to Malaysian Malays competitiveness is that we were exposed early to free enterprise. This ethos too is eroding with the “strengthening” of and heavy reliance on preferential policies as well as the increasing government interventions in the marketplace. At least Malays did not succumb to the narcotizing idealism of socialism, as a billion Chinese did under Chairman Mao. Islam successfully inoculated Malays against the fascination with socialism; too bad Islam was not as successful with the Arabs and other Muslims. Since Mao’s demise, China is enthusiastically adopting capitalism and paying only lip service to communism. It is desperately making up for lost time. In this regard, Malays have a head start.

The third factor for Malaysian Malay competitiveness was the nation’s education system, at least the one before the nationalists destroyed it. Modeled after the British, it was rigorous and emphasized early the basic skills in language, science, and mathematics. The system is now undermined severely with the growth of religious education and the obsession with Malay language.

If Malays could overcome these limitations and reacquire those earlier positive attributes, then we could regain our competitiveness and lead the greater Malay world. There are three potential arenas where we could excel and lead: culture, economics, and education.

Culturally we can reemphasize our earlier values of being open and receptive to the outside world. We should open our borders to those with skills. While we cannot preferentially give visas based on race as the Australians did with their overtly racist White Australia Policy, we can base it on language ability. If foreigners with specialized skills can demonstrate their proficiency (or willingness to acquire it) in Malay, then they should be admitted to Malaysia.

Malaysia needs abundant labor for its construction and plantation sectors. The Indonesians are the ideal foreign workers; they come from nearby and would unlikely stay permanently. This phenomenon is also seen in America. The Mexican (or even Canadian) immigrants are more likely to return home than those from China and India. Further, the Indonesians speak Malay and are culturally similar to us; their assimilation should be that much easier. The Pakistani and Bangladesh workers, coming from further away, would more likely stay and their assimilations that much more difficult because of language and cultural differences. Unfortunately, Malaysia’s recent callous treatment of its Indonesian workers was not only unacceptable from the humanitarian perspective but also in terms of being neighborly.

The better option would be for Malaysia to climb up the economic ladder and mechanize it various sectors so it would not need unskilled foreign labor. American gas service stations are fully automated. If Malaysia were to do that, it could do without those illiterate Bangladesh youths manning those stations. Similarly, if the construction and plantation sectors were mechanized, the country would need fewer unskilled laborers. Rubber is tapped in the same labor-intensive manner today as it was 100 years ago; there is no innovation at all. Mechanize these sectors and the need for unskilled foreign labor, and all the attendant social problems, would be reduced.

Another area for Malaysia to lead the Malay world would be in language and cultural development. The advantages would be obvious; writers and publishers would have a huge market of a quarter billion people.

The spelling, grammar, punctuations, syntax, and vocabulary would have to be streamlined so that a writer from Kedah could be easily understood in Kalimantan. This is best achieved not through edicts from remote committees of academics, politicians, and civil servants, but through the free flow of media and publications between the two countries. Unfortunately today, Indonesian dailies are not readily available in Malaysia; neither are Malaysian papers in Indonesia. Malaysian media carry little news of the greater Malay world.

Only through the free flow of media, information, and printed material could there be greater integration. A century ago the English used in Canada was the British variant, today through the free flow of media and information between the two countries there is remarkable language integration. Canadians now use American rather than British English. A similar phenomenon is occurring in Europe, as American media and publications have greater presence there than British ones.

Malaysia broadcasts few programs from Indonesia, and vice versa. If American networks could broadcast across an area covering six time zones, so could media companies in the region saturate the entire archipelago from Irian Jaya to Pulau Langkawi. That would help integrate the consumer markets and popular culture. It would also ensure the wider acceptability and marketability of Malay language and culture.

This is currently not happening because media and information sectors in both countries are considered “strategic national interests” and thus state controlled (that old control mentality again!). If those sectors were free, economic imperatives would hasten the integration. There would be no need for governmental committees to oversee or encourage it.


Next: Economic and Other Integrations

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