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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, December 05, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #43

Part II: Transforming Malaysia

The instinct to censor is a powerful one. It is also an acknowledgment of the unpredictable power of words. Goenawan Mohamad, Indonesian editor and journalist.

Chapter Six: Malaysia: Assets and Liabilities


To prepare for globalization Malaysia must first take stock of herself. She must assess her positive as well as negative attributes; and enhance her assets and lessen her liabilities. She must also be mindful that with ingenuity, liabilities can be turned into assets while assets not improved upon or left to deteriorate can become liabilities.

Malaysia is vulnerable on a number of fronts, with many simmering problems yet to be addressed or even acknowledged. Malaysian leaders must critically reexamine their policies and revisit their assumptions. They must not hesitate to jettison ineffective policies, modify inadequate ones, and expand on effective strategies.

In this chapter I will review some of Malaysia’s attributes, both positive and negative.


The Colonial Legacy

The conventional wisdom is that colonialism is a negative experience for the colonized. For Malaysia, I would argue the opposite. The British left behind a politically neutral and professional civil service and military, together with an independent judiciary. Malaysia also inherited from the British a system of parliamentary democracy, a very precious heritage.

Those who belittle these legacies would do well to look at neighboring Thailand. It has never been colonized and its civil institutions are not well developed. Until very recently, its military had been involved in one coup after another, and its judiciary is not worthy of emulation. The Indonesians were colonized too, but they were too busy fighting against instead of learning from the Dutch. Had the Indonesians learned a thing or two about business from that great mercantile nation, Indonesia would not be in such an economic mess today.

For the wider Malay world, colonialism was both a unifier and divider. Imperialism permanently divided what was once a natural Malay entity comprising the entire Southeast Asian archipelago. The Spanish claimed the Philippines; the Dutch, Indonesia; and the British, Malaysia. With the departure of the colonialists these divisions continued and indeed deepened, with each country pursuing its own separate path. Despite attempts at regional cooperation (ASEAN being the latest), these three countries have drifted apart instead of coming closer.

The converse, that is, the unifying influence of colonial rule on Malays cannot be underestimated. Prior to British rule, the Malay peninsular was nothing more than a series of tiny little fiefdoms, each with its own little sultan and system of nobility similar to that of medieval Europe. There was little sense of nationhood or feeling of kinship among Malays. Kelantan Malays treated their kinsmen in Johore as foreigners.

The British, by bringing together these tiny Malay states into one political entity, forced Malays to think as a nation. The major impetus for Malay unity came shortly after World War II, with the British overweening attempt to make Malaysia into a permanent dominion.

Malays rightly sensed this grave threat to their collective political survival; this forced them to unite to meet a common adversary: the British. That one development precipitated a sea change in the culture of Malays. Up until then Malays were perceived as being politically docile, uninterested in the affairs of state, and content to be under British “protection.” Inspired by and through the hard work of a visionary nationalist, Datuk Onn, the various Malay organizations were united under one banner, UMNO, with the sole purpose of taking on (politically) the British.

It was a tall order but through Onn’s brilliant strategic leadership, Malays were successful in derailing the British plan. UMNO went on, under different leadership, to champion the cause for independence.

It is a worthy contrast that Malaysians learned and benefited so much more from the British than the Indonesians ever did from the Dutch. One possible reason is that Malaysia gained her independence a decade later after Indonesia, and thus benefited from this longer tutelage. For another, Malaysia’s early leaders had spent some time in Britain during their youth and had seen or sampled the finer aspects of British life. Datuk Onn, for example, had attended a school in England and distinguished himself in the colonial civil service. He may have been anti-British politically, but culturally he was an unabashed anglophile; likewise his successor Tunku Abdul Rahman who graduated from Cambridge. Having been associated with the intellectual and social elite of Britain, these leaders were not so disparaging of the colonials and their values.

I digress here to illustrate another point. Many contemporary Malaysian leaders are viscerally against globalization. This attitude is bred because few of them have personally been immersed in or benefited from globalization. Mahathir and most of his ministers have never spent much time abroad to study or work. Nor have they run corporations or businesses that have substantial international connections or cliental. Their insular backgrounds shape their attitudes. Similarly, early Indonesian leaders like Sukarno had a jaundiced view of colonialism because they were exposed only to the brutality of Dutch rule and never to the finer achievements of Dutch society. He had never spent time in Holland.

In contrast to Malaysia, Mexico, another Third World country, welcomes globalization because its new president, Vicente Fox, was formerly the CEO of Coco Cola Mexico. He knows first hand of the importance and value of free trade and open markets. His experience with that American multinational company and American businessmen exposed him to another aspect of America specifically and globalization generally, one rarely seen or experienced by the “Go Home Gringo!” crowd in Mexico City.

Chile is also embracing globalization because many of its ministers and economic advisors have been trained at the finest American universities and worked with leading multinational corporations. They have experienced personally the tangible benefits of globalization and thus are not easily swayed by emotions. Had Mahathir been a consultant at an American hospital prior to becoming leader or had as advisors individuals like Megat Zaharuddin, the former CEO of Shell Malaysia, Mahathir would have a different take on globalization.

Going back to UMNO, had it been led in the beginning not by Datuk Onn or Tunku but by some rabble-rouser Malays who had never left their kampongs a la Perkasa’s Ibrahim Ali, Malaysia’s fate today would be no different from Indonesia. The Sanskrit word kupamanduka (frog in a well) describes well this insularity, so is the Malay equivalent, katak di bawah tempurong (frog underneath a coconut shell). Their world is very limited, hence their ready certitude.

Thus the greatest cultural transformation of Malays was started not by a committee, a commission of wise men, or UMNO Supreme Council, but by the seminal contribution of individuals like Datuk Onn and Tunku. It illustrates my point in the last part of Chapter 2 on the primacy of individuals in initiating significant changes in society. Qualitatively UMNO’s formation was equivalent to Japan’s Meiji Restoration, a positive cultural response to an external threat.

For those who belittle Datuk Onn’s significant contributions, let me suggest a different scenario that would have been devastating for Malays and Malaysia. Imagine had the British flattered Datuk Onn by offering him the grand title of Earl of Malaysia, and with it a seat in the House of Lords. They did that earlier to the Malay sultans, offering them private audiences at Buckingham Palace and exalted knighthoods. That strategy worked, just as it did with the Indian Maharajas. The Malay sultans were ready to sign the historic Malayan Union agreement to make the country a permanent British dominion. Fortunately Datuk Onn, his anglophile leanings notwithstanding, did not fall for the trap. But not for lack of trying on the part of the British! He was after all Sir Onn!

Next: Another Colonial Legacy: The Professional Military

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