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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 04, 2009

Same Old UMO, Same old Ethics

Same Old UMNO, Same Old Ethics
M. Bakri Musa

Biar mati anak, jangan mati adat! (Sacrifice your child if need be, but never your tradition!) Growing up in Negri Sembilan, that wisdom of my culture was continually drummed into me. To those outside the clan, that adage may seem extreme, an ugly manifestation of unyielding and irrational conservatism.

With my children now grown up, I recognize the verity of that village wisdom. Yes, it was hammered into me on the importance of our cultural tradition of fealty towards elders (our parents in particular), but there was also the equally important reciprocal tradition for the elders (who are presumably wiser) to be more patient and forgiving of their young.

It is this fidelity to adat that made my parents not put a guilt trip upon me when I chose a path that was not what they had expected. Cognizant of this adat too is what made me not stand in the way of my children when they too decided to venture on a journey beyond what is familiar to me.

My old Negri saying could be more accurately re-stated as: Jaga adat, jaga anak! (Save our tradition, and save our children!) Such an intricate system of social norms however, would easily be shattered if any of its component parts were to be compromised or exploited.

Consider the esteemed cultural trait of respect and loyalty to leaders and kings, and the associated severe penalty for derhaka (treachery). In tandem with that however, there is the reciprocal tradition encapsulated in the saying: Raja adil raja di sembah; Raja zalim raja di sanggah (Venerate the just king; defy the tyrant).

Yes, my culture demands that I revere and be loyal to my leaders and elders, but they must also be fully aware of the traditional countervailing restraints not to abuse that reverence I have of them.

Consider the nomination of Isa Samad to be UMNO’s standard bearer in the upcoming Bagan Pinang by-election. He was a Mentri Besar for 22 years and a Federal minister for a few years after that. He is the archetypical ‘local boy done good.’ His fellow villagers in Port Dickson have every right to be proud of him. To them, no honor however exalted would be adequate for him; they would wish upon him even more.

Thus it should not surprise us or Isa Samad that they would want him, and no one else, to have the singular honor to represent them in the state legislature. The surprise is that many are surprised by this expected and proper gesture of generosity on the part of Isa’s people towards him.

As per our adat however, it is not for the people to deny Isa Samad this honor; that would leave a bitter taste in their collective mouth as well as an affront to their cultural sensitivities. Rather it is for Isa Samad to have the wisdom and magnanimity to decline that honor. If he were to do that at the first round, again as per custom, they would once more beg him to reconsider, and again Isa Samad should decline.

The social norms demand that these back and forth offers and declines would go on for at least three rounds, all to demonstrate (or at least make a show of) the “genuineness” of the gesture. Anything less and it would risk being interpreted as perfunctory, and less than genuine.

It is through such displays of finesse and subtleties that our culture and traditions have stood the test of time and smoothed our social order. Alas today our traditional values and generosities have been abused not by outsiders but by our own people. It is our own leaders and kin who betray us and our values, as so crudely and ruthlessly demonstrated by Isa Samad.

Nonetheless true to our tradition of “Raja adil raja di sembah; Raja zalim raja di sanggah,” we should not hesitate, and do so in no uncertain terms, to sanggah (defy) these leaders.

UMNO’s Wet-Finger-In-the-Air Leaders

When UMNO chose a disbarred lawyer to contest the recent by-election in Penang, I commented that the next time around expect the party to scrounge even lower in search of even slimier characters to represent the party. I ventured that it would be difficult to find someone more unworthy than a disbarred lawyer, but trust those UMNO folks, they would find someone. I did not expect to be proven right, and so soon.

In Isa Samad UMNO has someone who had been expelled from the party for “money politics,” the euphemism for corruption. Knowing UMNO’s shady ethics, to be expelled for that must take some doing.

In justifying his party’s pick, UMNO’s Deputy President Muhyiddin Yassin declared, “We have decided that this is what the people want.” He was jubilant when making that declaration. Surrounded as he was by senior leaders of the Barisan and fellow ministers, and judging by their beaming smiles and other body language, they too shared his enthusiasm for the candidate.

Just in case we might miss the point, Muhyiddin went on to reassure everyone that the choice was made “after much thought and scrutiny.” Meaning, it was deliberate.

Even ignoring Isa Samad’s blatant bribing of UMNO delegates and then bragging about it (the reason for his expulsion), the more fundamental issue is this. The man has nothing more to offer the state after serving as Mentri Besar for over 24 years. If he had any talent or innovative ideas, that should have been obvious during all those years.

At this stage of their careers, leaders like Isa Samad should be seeking out and mentoring the next generation of leaders, not desperately hogging the stage, and their followers’ fast dwindling reservoir of respect and gratitude.

Only last week Muhyiddin was at pains to point out that he was intent on seeking fresh talent, especially after the Bagan Pinang branch folks brazenly declared that Isa was their only choice. In succumbing to local pressure, Muhyiddin’s leadership is nothing more than wet-finger-in-the-air variety. That is fine in leading a herd of kerbau (water buffaloes) but not a nation aspiring for Vision 2020.

There is nothing wrong with a leader sticking his wet finger in the air to check the prevailing wind if that would lead him to trim his sails and steer his ship of state better, while keeping his eye on the compass. Indeed that is the hallmark of a skilled skipper. However, if you keep changing course and be oblivious of the compass, you will never reach your destination.

The earlier rhetoric about UMNO having “to change or be changed” is now proven to be nothing more than just “cock talk,” to put it in the local vernacular. Muhyiddin is also Deputy Prime Minister, a heart beat away from the nation’s top job. This preview of his leadership does not reassure me.

In picking Isa, Muhyddin obviously had to compromise his principles and abandon his commitment to reforming the party. He should be reminded of the old Xeno mathematical paradox: You will never reach your destination if you are satisfied at reaching only the halfway mark at every try.

Once you start compromising your principle at the first obstacle, then it gets easier the next time. Soon you would have no scruples compromising all your principles. By that time you would not only be willing to dispense with your adat but you also would be willing to part with your first-born, just to get your way.

Your corruption then would have been complete, with nothing worthy left to defend or honor. Then it would be: Mati adat dan mati anak (Death to your culture, and death to your children).


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