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.
Allah has been generous to Malaysia. Malaysians are reminded of this every time they read about natural disasters occurring elsewhere. There are no earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, or devastating floods. God has spared Malaysia such natural calamities.
Then there is the climate; it is not visited by extremes of heat or cold. Whereas Californians have to pay to warm their houses in winter and cool them in summer, Malaysians are spared such expenses. And if Malaysians were to design their homes well with cross drafts and adequate natural ventilation, air conditioning would not be essential. It is only for comfort. In temperate zones heating a home is essential lest you freeze. Home designs in temperate zones must necessarily be more complex to cope with both winter and summer. Unlike Malaysians, those living in temperate zones need two sets of clothing.
Roads in temperate countries are subjected to extremes of temperatures and the consequent wide range of contraction and expansion. Thus maintenance costs are high. Malaysia is spared such added costs. Municipalities in cold countries spend substantial sums of money to keep their streets free of snow.
In Malaysia, construction work occurs year round, except for brief interruptions during rainy season. I am always astounded at how fast buildings get built in Malaysia. In America outside work is curtailed during inclement weather and shorter winter days.
Apart from the climate, Malaysia is blessed with fertile soil and abundant natural resources. Its earth supports a variety of plants. We are a major producer of rubber, palm oil, cocoa, pepper, and hosts of other agricultural products. These are all renewable resources. The country’s immense old world jungle contains a variety of valuable hardwoods. It is also a source of alkaloids and other natural products that have wide pharmaceutical applications. Carefully managed these resources could last indefinitely; unscrupulously treated they will not only be destroyed but in turn create monumental environmental disasters. Soil erosion, flooding, and smog are just some of the horrors of less-than-wise treatment of the land.
Malaysia is also blessed with deposits of valuable minerals and hydrocarbons. The old standby was tin, and just as its market dropped, the country discovered vast deposits of hydrocarbon. How blessed!
The country has vast stretches of beautiful beaches bathed by welcoming warm waters. These are prized tourist destinations. But compared to Hawaii or Cancun, Malaysia’s tourist industry is not well developed. Hawaii caters for the large mainland domestic market as well as the equally lucrative Japanese market. Visitors to Hawaii can enjoy not only the beautiful warm beaches and sunshine but also partake in other attractions that have been well developed – cruises, golfing, and aquatic activities.
Cancun prides itself in being rationally planned. In the early 1970’s the Mexican president assembled a group of professionals and asked them to design from scratch a tourist industry for what was then an impoverished fishing village. Using computer simulations they designed the entire region to cater for tourists from Europe, North America, and Latin America, all lucrative markets. They built a modern airport to accommodate jumbo jets that could fly the maximum distance. To ensure the pristine beaches and clear waters would not be polluted, they built modern central sewage and water treatment plants, and instituted strict guidelines for coastal constructions.
Today Cancun has hundreds of luxury hotels catering to millions of visitors annually. What was once a sleepy coastal village is now a world-class tourist destination. Like Hawaii, Cancan also offers many other attractions, in particular the nearby Mayan ruins. The hotels too offer a variety of options including timeshares and all-inclusive packages. Cancun is my favorite vacation destination as I can book everything with one phone call (or via the Internet). With one bill I can prepay for everything: hotel, food, airfare, and also the taxi to and from the airport! Maximum convenience! Non-Spanish speaking guests have no difficulty as most of the workers speak English. Besides, there are ample signs in English. Very convenient!
The tourist industry in Malaysia is still very much “work in progress.” There must be a full scale and comprehensive plan a la Cancun; otherwise we would squander this wonderful potential. Already we are seeing what were once premier tourist sites like Penang and Port Dickson losing their appeal because of haphazard construction and poor planning; their prime attractions – the fine beaches – soiled by pollution. When I visit Port Dickson, I dare not dip my foot in the water as it is so polluted. The stench and the litter on the beach are something else.
Malaysia’s strategic location between East and West could be leveraged to turn it into an aviation and maritime hub. Presently Singapore, only a couple hundred miles away, is capitalizing on this fortuitous geography. It is successful because of its superior services. If Malaysia can improve its services, given the markedly lower cost structure, it should be able to take business away from that republic. Already Johore’s Port of Tanjung Pelepas is siphoning traffic away from Singapore because it offers comparable services at markedly reduced prices. Malaysia’s Sepang airport could do likewise to Singapore’s Changi.
The country’s unchanging climate can be a liability. As one day merges into the next, there is no sense of urgency. It is easy to fall into the trap of continually postponing things and then suddenly, months and years have gone by. There is no tangible seasonal reminder of a deadline. As there are no obvious climatic changes to spur Malaysians to a preset timetable and deadline, these must be created artificially to avoid the manana (postpone to tomorrow) syndrome.
Lastly, it has been claimed that Malaysia’s heat and humidity are not conducive to intellectual activities. At least that is the convenient excuse. If that were true it is easily remedied. Simply air-condition our offices and colleges. Thus the only downside to Malaysia’s climate is readily solvable.
Malaysians, especially the leaders, have always regarded their plural society as a liability. If only the nation were racially and culturally homogenous, these leaders would lament, many of our problems would be gone. Such wishful thinking! I argue the contrary. That is, Malaysia’s racial plurality, far from being a liability, is actually an asset. And a significant one at that!
Malaysian policies and strategies are constantly being looked at and analyzed in racial terms. Often the implicit assumption is that what is good for Malays must necessarily be bad for non-Malays, and the reverse, what is good for non-Malays is bad for Malays. This mentality is ingrained at all levels. As noted earlier, Malaysia’s racial plurality is another legacy of the British colonial rule.
The country’s multiracial society has indeed been a source of problems, both past and present. In part this Malaysian dilemma results from socioeconomic divisions paralleling racial lines. This is not a uniquely Malaysian problem. With the massive migrations and arbitrary drawings of political boundaries in the last century, many countries have ethnically and culturally diverse populations. Today’s headlines are filled with tragedies consequent to those diversities: the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans; the genocide of Rwanda; the continuing sectarian strife in Northern Ireland; and ethnic hostilities in Sri Lanka.
Malaysia too has had its share. Fortunately its race relations have improved considerably but occasionally there are flare-ups that rudely remind everyone that race can still be an incendiary issue. The most recent was the 2001 riot in Kampong Medan, a squalid suburb of Kuala Lumpur.
The frightening aspect of that outbreak of hostility was that it was triggered by a trivial neighborly dispute over a wedding that was held on the same day as a funeral. It just so happened that the principals were of different races. Perhaps that should not surprise anyone. However, it was disappointing to see the response of the authorities. For a long while they completely denied what was apparent to all: that the whole affair was racial. Belatedly the prime minister and his deputy admitted the obvious, but not until they had exhausted their credibility.
Handled creatively, Malaysia’s plural society could be turned into a considerable asset. Malaysians are exposed daily to all the great traditions of Asia. Walk down any street in any town and you will see a mosque, Chinese temple, Hindu shrine, and even a church. In any one city block one can savor Asia’s many culinary delights. Roadside stalls peddle Malay sate, Chinese noodles, and Indian curry. (And also lately, hot dog and hamburger stands!) There is also a remarkable degree of racial integration in all spheres of social and economic life. When seeking medical care, buying stocks, or hiring a taxi, one is likely to encounter Malaysians of different races.
What is truly remarkable about this is, unlike the integration in America where each minority group tries hard to blend into the mainstream, Malaysians proudly maintain their own racial and cultural identity. Unlike minorities elsewhere, the Chinese and Indians in Malaysia do not feel obligated or forced to assume a Malay identity or to change their names or manner of dressing.
In America by contrast, within a generation the children of immigrants would lose their identification with their parent’s culture. German-Americans would anglicize their names and prefer roast beef to sauerkraut. My American-Chinese colleagues hardly celebrate Chinese New Year. In Thailand and Indonesia, the Chinese have to assume local names. Outward expressions of their cultural traditions are prohibited. By comparison, Chinese New Year and Deepavali are nowhere more exuberantly celebrated than in Malaysia. What is even more remarkable is that such ethnic displays do not evoke hostility among Malays. On the contrary, Malaysians join in to celebrate each other’s festivities and enjoy the public holidays!
Left to their own devices the various races in Malaysia would by the nature of human dynamics continue to forge closer. It is only when their leaders start to “champion” for their rights that they begin to view each other in terms of “us” versus “them.”
In this regard I am extremely concerned over recent tendencies among young Malaysians to segregate themselves racially. This does not bode well for the future of Malaysia. The authorities would do well to study the phenomenon and quickly ameliorate it.
Malaysians are already steeped in the ways of multiculturalism. Most are multilingual, especially non-Malays. Many Malays unfortunately are still trapped by inappropriate nationalistic instincts and remain handicapped by their monolingual capabilities.
Malaysians are thus better prepared for the global world, having learned to live in, and tolerate or even celebrate the different cultures and lifestyles. When Malaysians travel abroad and encounter different customs and ways of doing things, they are not shocked or surprised. They are already used to these differences back home. In contrast Americans, used to the single cultural ways at home, react with horror when they see Vietnamese eating dog meat or Arab women segregating themselves.
For Malays, the country’s racial and religious plurality presents yet another advantage. The mere presence of a large number of non-Muslims is a check on the reach of the political ambitions of extremist Malay Muslim politicians. If not for the buffering presence (and voting bloc) of these politically significant non-Muslims, Malays would by now be deeply split along religious lines in the pattern of Algeria and Iran. Fundamentalist Muslims cannot enforce their strict uncompromising code on the rest of the country because of the presence of large numbers of non-Muslims. Thus progressive and liberal Muslims are protected from the coercion of extremist Muslims. For this reason I have little fear of Malaysia ever turning into another Algeria or Iran. Sadly, moderate Muslims have yet to appreciate this very significant contribution of non-Muslims. Even PAS is fully aware of this new political reality of countervailing forces. PAS is now attempting to soften its message in order to appeal to non-Muslims.
Contrary to prevailing opinions, I posit that the greatest threat to Malaysia’s stability is not interracial but intra-communal, specifically intra-Malay strife. Today’s Malays are becoming dangerously polarized with a shrinking moderate center to serve as a conciliatory buffer. Absent this, the sizable non-Malay population serves this vital function.
There are three potential fault lines along which Malays could fracture: religious, ideological, and socioeconomic. It is unlikely that any one factor could precipitate a severe crisis, but a confluence of any two or all three could trigger violent eruptions. The protracted animosity between poor rural Kelantan (controlled by Islamic PAS) and the central government (led by secular UMNO) is a reflection of this dangerous confluence of factors.
In my earlier book The Malay Dilemma Revisited, I explored in greater details these various fault lines that could potentially threaten Malay society: the religious disputes from early in the 20th century between young progressives (Kaum Muda) and their more conservative elders (Kaum Tua) to the more recent all consuming, totally unproductive, and highly divisive kafir-megafirkan (the righteous versus presumed infidels) debates of the 1980’s; the ideological disputes between pro- and anti-royal elements of the 1980’s that pitted the sultans against the executive branch; and the political conflicts between socialists and conservatives.
Malays are also increasingly strained along socioeconomic lines. Income disparity is widest among Malays. Vision 2020 reiterates much about an economically just society, and the nation has been remarkably successful in reducing the gross disparities between the races. There is, however, no comparable commitment to ameliorating inequities within Malay society. Unchecked this inequity will continue to fester.
These squabbles among Malays – “fundamentalist” versus “moderate,” urban versus rural, rich versus poor – cannot be lightly dismissed. Should they escalate, non-Malays would be forced by the sheer dynamics of the conflict to take sides. And should they (non-Malays) choose the wrong, that is, the losing side, the subsequent retributions then would be doubly vicious.
The nation’s multiracial society can be harnessed to bring out the best of each community. Malays, seeing the industry of Chinese, cannot help but absorb some of that positive trait. Malays are indeed spurred by the competition from non-Malays to do better. Malays in Malaysia are much more competitive than those in Indonesia as a result of their exposure to significant non-Malay cultures.
Living abroad I meet many new Chinese from Taiwan, China, and elsewhere. Of these our Malaysian Chinese seem to meld readily in their new environment because they are used to living with non-Chinese in Malaysia. Prior to Hong Kong reverting to China, a number of its residents migrated to Canada, just for “insurance.” It did not take long for them to run afoul of Canada’s zoning laws when they started building huge mansions with gaudy color schemes on their tiny city lots. They were used to that in Hong Kong and could not understand why their new Canadian neighbors would object.
This intersection of the different cultures can also result in the opposite, that is, it would bring out the worst prejudices on each side. During British rule when the various communities were effectively compartmentalized, whenever the various communities interacted, there would always be suspicion and deep distrust. Today with all Malaysians committed to the nation, there is a greater willingness to learn from and understand each other. Given such a milieu it tends to bring out the best in everyone. This is precisely the atmosphere in America. Arabs and Jews may kill each other back in their homeland, but in America they are in business together. The Catholic and Protestants may be at each other’s throat in Northern Ireland, but in America they are husband and wife. One of my colleagues is a Tamil happily married to a Singhalese. Back in Sri Lanka they would be slaughtering each other.
Americans are now recognizing the contributions of the various immigrant groups. Average Americans, especially those living in California and other states with sizable minorities, have a definite advantage over the British and Germans in this regard as they have been exposed to and are familiar with cultures other than their own. Viewed in this light, Malaysia’s multiracial society is a definite asset.
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.
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