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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 12, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #44

Chapter Six: Malaysia: Assets and Liabilities
Other Colonial Legacies

The other enduring British colonial legacy – a professional army – saw Malaysia through many a crisis, from the konfrontasi against Indonesia in the early 1960s and the 1969 race riot, to the constitutional crisis of the 1980s, and the recent unrest over the Anwar affair. Through it all the military remained neutral and loyal to its elected civilian commanders. Malaysia has not fallen into the trap visited upon many previously colonized countries where the army is part of the problem. In Indonesia, the military is the only viable institution; unfortunately it squandered that unique trust by actively meddling in civilian matters. What was once a noble and highly regarded institution is now no different from the nation’s other corrupt and ineffective institutions. Indonesia’s armed services are less the guardian of the nation but more a constant threat to its stability. Malaysia is fortunately spared such a fate.

When the British first mooted the idea of a native army shortly before World War II, there was considerable skepticism among the top brass on the fighting capability of Malays. The prevailing stereotype then was that Malays were passive, carefree, and would not readily submit to the rigors of military discipline. When the first battalion of The Malay Regiment was formed, there was considerable pessimism. But to the surprise of the British officers, the experiment was a resounding success. Malays took to the military like ducks to water, and the Malay Regiment was quickly expanded. The Regiment was the last and most tenacious defender of Singapore against the Japanese onslaught. The unit was also exemplary during the later communist insurgency. Today that service has a deservedly fine reputation. The definitive treatise has yet to be written on this noble endeavor but when it is, I suggest that its success was also attributed to other rather mundane details. Let me elaborate.

During my youth it was the fantasy of many of my compatriots to join that regiment. What attracted them was not the warrior instinct or the noble patriotic zeal to defend the nation, rather the simple fact that the regiment had as the standard uniform attractive military fatigues as well as a dashing traditional Malay costume of white baju and green samping! I remember these raw recruits returning to the village after boot camp; their uniforms would never leave them. They wore it everywhere. There was something in that spick and span uniform and polished boots that excited these youngsters. And of course the colorful regimental baju and samping would swoon the local maidens. These more than anything else were what made the Malay Regiment a thundering success. Bored by their unstructured lives in the village and stuck in their sarong all day, these youths clamored at the chance to be disciplined and having a structured existence, and at the same time looking great – the aspiration of any hot-blooded young man!

This observation does not in any way detract or denigrate the strength of character and bravery of those Malay soldiers who put their lives on the line for love of their country. I salute every one of them. That a simple uniform could bring out the warrior instinct and discipline of young Malays is awe-inspiring.

I have always wondered why we do not capitalize on this trait. Many of the social problems of Malay youths today could be solved if we provide structured training and learning environment, complete with smart uniforms. America is experimenting with military schools for its inner cities and the programs work well, cutting down the discipline problems and dropout rates. As an aside, many leading Malays like Prime Minister Mahathir attribute their success to the habit of hard work and strict discipline they learned under Japanese rule.

Malaysians, and Malays in particular, are attracted to and enamored with uniforms. Watch those department stores’ salesgirls. Outside their uniforms they are just a bunch of giggly girls, but once in uniform they suddenly look and behave professionally! It is as if they have this need to declare their group solidarity and sense of belonging. Even ministers have their own official garbs, no doubt to differentiate themselves from the garden-variety politicians.

An independent judiciary is another prized British legacy. Any society will have conflicts among its members; hence there must be reliable and fair mechanisms for resolving them in a civil manner without resorting to violence. The more complex the society is, the more the need for such mechanisms. It is not surprising that in America, the courts are such a prominent feature and lawyers a dominant force.

The tradition of excellence of the colonial justice system continued after independence. To its credit, Malaysia’s early leaders understood the necessity for excellence in the judiciary and appointed only out standing individuals to the bench. The nation’s first “native” chief justice, Tun Suffian Hashim, was the epitome of brilliance, integrity, and fairness. This was no happenstance. He was well prepared, having attended Cambridge and had wide experience in various fields. He not only maintained the British tradition of excellence and independence, but also elevated the judiciary to greater heights. His legacy is such that his many successors appeared greatly diminished by comparison.

This hard-gained reputation of the judiciary was compromised in the 1980s during the constitutional crisis over the role of the King. Tun Suffian’s successors were not up to the task when the issue finally reached them for adjudication. Instead of being the ultimate and impartial arbiter of that dispute, the judges themselves were embroiled in it. That particular crisis saw the sacking of the chief justice, an unprecedented act by the political leadership. An independent reviewing tribunal comprised of eminent jurists from other Commonwealth countries reaffirmed the prime minister’s action in firing that judge.

More telling was the fate of the fired jurist. He subsequently dabbled in politics, perhaps unable to make a career of his legal experience, and was resoundingly rejected by the electors. He was defeated by, of all persons, an untried junior female lawyer. That more than anything was reflective of the caliber of the man.

The third legacy of the British was the English fluency of Malaysians. Unfortunately, instead of building on this great asset, the nation squandered it. Malaysian leaders succumbed to the small mindedness of the language nationalists who in their obsession with the Malay language threw away the nation’s greatest asset: its citizens’ proficiency in English. The “zero sum” mindset of the nationalists was simply this: for Malay language to survive, English must be squashed. The reality is that fluency in one language enhances fluency in another. Had the situation been handled more creatively, Malaysians today would have been fluent not only in English but also Malay. Instead, today’s young (especially Malays) are handicapped or trapped by their lack of English fluency.

Malays, in their obsession with anti-colonialism, forget that it was the British who romanized the Malay script. Previously it was written in the Arabic script, jawi. That simple move of Romanizing the Malay script enabled the language to expand easily to accommodate modern scientific terms. The Roman script also gave Malay a readymade advantage in this computer age. Imagine the handicap languages like Arabic and Chinese have in adapting to the modern keyboard.

The British also imprinted on Malaysians the value of trade and free enterprise. Britain to be sure has not always embraced such sentiments. There was a time when mother England was enamored with socialism and bent on state ownership of the various means of production. All those socialists succeeded at were to take the “great” out of Great Britain. Fortunately, today’s Labor Party under Tony Blair is a far cry from its former self.

Malaysian leaders, unlike those of many other colonies, do not subscribe to the fantasies of socialism. The first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, set the tone towards free enterprise very quickly. Had he not done so, Malaysia’s fate could have easily been like that of India – economically stagnant and inward looking.

When driving along Malaysia’s modern highways one is again reminded by another British legacy. Along the verdant countryside are rows and upon rows of neatly planted rubber trees. Seeing the ubiquity of these plantations one easily forgets that the specie was not native to the country but brought in by the British. Malaysia is now fighting a tough battle against synthetic rubber. I have long thought of a great commercial for natural rubber that would tap on the “Back to Nature” and the Green Earth movements. One would have one half of the ad show a typical American rubber factory, rusty with thick clouds spewing out its chimneys; another, a picture of a green bucolic rubber plantation in Malaysia. The caption on the first would be “Your rubber plant!” the second, “Our rubber plant!” The tag line would be, “Be Natural! Support the Natural Rubber Industry and Keep our Environment Green!” That would definitely sell!

Malays must also be thankful to the British for getting rid of some of the unsavory aspects of our culture. For one, the British abolished slavery and indentured labor. Even during my youth I heard stories of young men being conscripted by the palace over minor transgressions (usually for not being sufficiently deferential) to do manual labor and be royal “gofers.” Generations of Malay families have been indoctrinated to believe that their permanent place in the grand scheme of things is to be slaves of the nobility and royal class. Young village maidens who were generously endowed or for some reason caught the fancy of the sultans were similarly collected for the palace harem. To the affected family this was not necessarily a tragedy; on the contrary it was a splendid opportunity for the injection of royal genes into the family tree. Nobody however, bothered to query the maidens. Thanks to the British, these and other odious cultural practices are now long gone.

Not all however. The British perversely strengthened the Malay feudal system and values. Traditional Malay society was strictly stratified, based on one’s heritage and birth. There was very little social mobility: once a peasant always a peasant. Traditional Malay society with its system of nobility and embellished titles was reminiscent of the British earls, lords and squires. So enamored were Malay leaders with the British aristocracy that the first item of business in the newly independent Malaysia was to have a system of civil honors and titles like Tun’s, Tan Sri’s, and Datuk’s. Endless hours of top-level meetings were convened to deal with this presumably most pressing issue. Tunku Abdul Rahman apparently spent hours researching classical Malay literature to find just the right titles and honorifics. He was also reported to be involved personally in designing the fancy ministerial garbs and other official attires. All in an attempt to ape the elaborate gowns of British lords and dukes.

The modern world may be into globalization and with it the recognition and rewarding of merit, but Malay society is still stuck in its feudal ways of elaborate titles and emphasis on birth and heritage. The royal honors list keeps growing longer and longer every year. This is a great liability, a barnacle that impedes the progress of Malays. Instead of seeing a lessening of these useless preoccupations, Malays are even more enamored with and consumed by them. Non-Malays too have become afflicted by this “Malay Malady,” all aspiring to become members of the native aristocracy, Malay hulubalang (knights) wannabes!

On a personal note, I have a lot to be grateful for British colonial rule. Had I been growing up in Malaysia today, I would probably end up as a menacing Mat Rempit, harassing motorists on our highways. Thanks to the British colonial for building an English school in my town, and my parents’ sacrifice to enroll me in it, I was able to get a superior education. That opened the door to the wider world for me.


Next: Our Plurality An Asset

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