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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, October 18, 2009

The New God of UMNO

The New God of UMNO
M. Bakri Musa

In his celebrated novel Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan (RSJ – Spikes Throughout the Pathway), Shahnon Ahmad chronicles the seemingly endless traps of poverty endured by a kampong family. Or in his elegant words, “bencana-bencana yang tidak bisa langsai selagi jantung berdegup [dan] nadi berdenyut … ” (never ending cycle of calamities endured as long as your heart beats and pulse throbs). Shahnon asserts that the pain could only be felt by those willing to reflect on and empathize with the struggles of our pap-pak tani (peasant farmers).

This thought haunts me as I reflect on the hoopla surrounding the recent UMNO General Assembly. The soaring rhetoric of “1-Malaysia” and of reform is a universe away from the world inhabited by RSJ’s main character, Lahuma. The irony strikes hard as the Lahumas are the very people UMNO professes to champion.

The biting irony does not end there. Many of the Assembly participants, including the high-flying ones, are only a generation or two away from the deprivations so painfully detailed in RSJ. Those agonizing memories must have been seared into them by their parents and grandparents. That should motivate anyone to do something to alleviate the debilitating poverty still experienced by so many today.

Yet I did not sense even an inkling of that sentiment at this grand gathering of self-declared “defenders of the Malays.” Even more bizarre is that these UMNO delegates still have friends and relatives in abundance who continue to suffer the pain of peasant life. And let’s face it, stripped of their political patronages many of the currently high-living delegates would be reduced to a Lahuma existence overnight.

I doubt that many of the delegates have heard of Shahnon Ahmad, let alone read his novels. Hence they would not know what I am writing about. I once tried to buy his books at one of KL’s major bookstores, only to be greeted by the sales clerk’s response of, “Shahnon siapa?” (Who?) A stinging indictment of our education system!

Thus a brief summary of RSJ is warranted before proceeding. The book describes the endless cascading calamities of droughts, floods, and infestations suffered by one poor farmer (Lahuma). His tragedy (but not the book) ends with his unnecessary death, from an untreated trifling sliver injury. His demise compounds the anguish of his wife, who goes berserk and ends up being locked in a cage by her fellow villagers.

Shahnon’s depiction of the tyranny of poverty is a universal theme. We see this in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the travails of a sharecropper’s family in drought-stricken Oklahoma of the Depression era, and Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, also about a peasant family, this time in pre-revolution China.

Today, the descendents of Steinbeck’s Tom Joad are busy running the thriving agro-businesses in San Joaquin Valley, while Buck’s Wang Lung’s grandchildren are actively trading in US Treasury papers.

In contrast, Lahuma’s cicit (great grandchildren) are still scraping a harsh living in their disintegrating kampong; his fears of their being reduced to begging painfully prescient. Over half a century of unchallenged UMNO leadership, Malays are reduced to begging: begging for handouts from their government, begging for economic scraps from non-Malays, and begging for respect from others.

UMNO leaders may have been to Oxford and resided in sophisticated capitals of the world, alas scratch their hide and the ‘kampongness’ oozes out of the pores. They are still trapped by the same cultural genes as Lahuma’s. Where he is crippled by religious fatalism – “Mati hidup dan susah senang dipegang oleh Tuhan” (Life and death, hardship and ease, are in Allah’s hands) – UMNO members are ensnared by the political variety. They believe their fate is in the hands of the party; it is their savior, their new god – UMNO dulu, kini, dan selama nya! (UMNO – Then, now, and forever!)

To UMNO folks, the party has replaced Allah as the source of bounty and benevolence, as well as the punisher and decider of their fate. Corrupt leaders are forgiven not by Allah but by the party. The benevolence does not end there. Isa Samad had his political corruption sentence reduced, and then he was rewarded to be the party’s election candidate. Khairy Jamaluddin had his “money politics” conviction essentially pardoned, and then blessed by being head of UMNO Youth!

With such compelling examples, no wonder UMNO members turn to their new god with the gusto of a fresh convert. Just as Lahuma would never question Allah’s design, UMNO members too would not dare question their god and risking his wrath.

There was one obvious departure with this recent Assembly. Gone were the obligatory race-taunting theatrics, shrill calls for defending the ‘honor’ of the Malays, and other ugly chauvinistic displays. Time will tell whether this shift represented a change of heart or tactic.

My take is that this is more of the latter. For one, UMNO leaders have not been known to utter anything sensible. When they do, one wonders whether it comes from within or merely the parroting of poll-tested printouts from their public relations hire. For another, there is a huge gulf between what those leaders preach and practice.

UMNO’s latest obsession is combating corruption and rejuvenating the party. At least that is the impression their leaders give. Yet when given an opportunity to demonstrate its resolve, as with the recent by-election in Bagan Pinang, the party chose a tired and tainted character to be its standard bearer. I would have thought that it would pick someone who best exemplified the “new, rejuvenated” UMNO.

In judging UMNO leaders (and thus Prime Ministers), there was only one who understood the plight of our Lahumas. Because he understood them, Tun Razak was able to craft imaginative and effective policies, such as his massive rural development schemes, in particular FELDA.

The Tun’s massive expansion of educational opportunities (Gerakan Lampu Suloh – Operation Torch) brought light to the families of the Lahumas, enabling them to escape the trap of poverty. His expansion of health facilities in rural areas (Klinik Desa) ensured that they would not die unnecessarily from simple treatable diseases.

Tun Razak did not belittle or poke fun at the cultural beliefs or biological heritage of the villagers. While they fervently believed that their fate was in Allah’s hands, Tun Razak demonstrated there was much that his government could do to persuade if not prod Allah to alter that destiny. He was more persuaded by another Quranic verse: Allah would not change the condition of a people unless they first make an effort at it. As leader, Tun Razak felt a great obligation to help his people change their conditions by bringing education, health care, and development to the villages.

He could not care less about Malay leadership, Ketuanan Melayu, Glokal Malay, or any other cutesy slogans. Take care of those three basics (health, education and economic development), and the rest will take care of themselves. There are no shortcuts; stunt or showy development projects cannot replace the real need for improving our schools and healthcare, or bringing development to rural areas.

Now that the delegates are back home to savor the memories of their brief moments in the limelight, I am left wondering what specifically did they do that would directly impact the lives of our villagers. None! The Pak Lahumas would continue enduring their dreary life, one that has remained unchanged for the past half a century under UMNO rule, save for Tun Razak’s brief tenure. If UMNO gets its way, that life will remain the same for the next few generations.

Pondering the fate and empathizing with the plight of our pak-pak tani are furthest away from the thoughts of these UMNO leaders. They will however, make a brief and perfunctory show of both come election time, when our Lahumas can expect gifts of kain pelakat, in return for their votes of course.


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