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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.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 3 of 14)


The Comfort of the Coconut Shell

[Presented at the Fifth Annual Alif Ba Ta Conference at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, organized by UMNO Club of New York-New Jersey, January 29, 2011.]

[In the first two parts I asserted that for Malaysia to achieve her Vision 2020 aspirations, she needs leaders and citizens with free minds. I likened those without a free mind as frogs underneath a coconut shell.]

We ignore our better sense and willingly believe the mullah despite the donkey braying in our face because our minds are captive to biology, tradition, and the environment, among others.

The North Koreans fervently believe that they live in Paradise because their “Beloved Leader” tells them so. Never mind that they wake up every morning with nothing to look forward to and go to sleep at night on an empty stomach. Malaysian leaders never tire of telling us that they are competent and not corrupt despite the mess the country is in and their luxuriating in their palatial mansions. It does not take a donkey to realize that these leaders could not possibly be “clean” to afford such obscene opulence just on their government pay.

We refuse to hear the braying donkey because our mind is trapped by culture to believe the mullah. Doubting would be an act of blasphemy, disloyalty, or even treachery.

Returning to the coconut shell metaphor, that little (or even big) frog can be smug about his world and claim to fully comprehend and in command of it. After all, what is there to understand? His world is all dark and small. As for commanding it, he is the only one to obey his orders!

What that proverbial Señor Frog does not appreciate is that his universe, large as it may seem to him, is nothing but a speck. I am not referring here to Señor Frog chain of bars in the Caribbean and Mexico, which is a huge and attractive universe, at least to American college students on spring break.

We on the outside may be tempted to lord it over the unfortunate entrapped frog. We may even pity the poor critter. However, as Pramoedya noted in his Child of All Nations, “Pity is the feeling of well intentioned people who are unable to act.” Impotent, we assuage what little guilt we may harbor by rationalizing that the poor soul is probably quite happy with his lot. That may well be; after all you would not miss what you do not know you miss.

Malaysians face many forces, subtle and not so subtle, that keep us cooped under our shell. There is our feudal culture, and with it our meek and excessive deference to authority figures. Our schools and universities are more for indoctrinating, not teaching our young to think critically. We are also easily trapped by labels; thus we readily dispense with critically examining what is in or behind those labels. Our leaders exploit this societal weakness by labeling those they disagree with as “anti-nationals” or “unpatriotic.” We in turn are only too ready to believe those labels.

Then there are intrusive and repressive laws like the awful Internal Security Act where a minister has absolute power to incarcerate you without trial. No mortal should ever have that power. As the Sudanese reformer Mahmoud Mohamad Taha wisely observed, “No person is perfect enough to be entrusted with the liberty and dignity of others.” We need effective checks and balances, and respect for due process. Those are not niceties but necessities. Do not let any mullah regardless how impressive his title or big his turban is tell you otherwise. You would be a donkey to believe him.

There are three major obstacles facing our entrapped frog in escaping his lot. The first and greatest is to instill in him the realization that he is indeed trapped, and then to ignite in him the desire to escape; second, help him topple his shell; and third, assist him in adjusting to his new open world.

The first obstacle is the toughest for far too often we lack even the awareness of being trapped. We are blissfully ignorant of the outside world. This awareness of being entrapped is crucial but by itself is not enough; we must also have the desire to escape. For that to happen, we must first be dissatisfied with our current state.

It may seem perverse but there are those who are content to remain underneath their shell, readily accepting their fate and ascribing it to Allah’s will. Al qadar (divinely destined)! Who are we to challenge His design?

Then there is the universal power of inertia; we are comfortable with the status quo. Besides, it has served our parents, and their parents and even grandparents well. Again, who are we to alter tradition?

As for ambition, that would only upset mankind, as Pramoedya sagely observed in his short story, Djongos dan Babu (Houseboy and Maid). That family destined themselves to be slaves forever. If God were to pity them, their thirtieth generation would have descended so low as to be no longer humans but worms crawling inside the earth, predicted Pramoedya.

The coconut shell world of Sabu and Ina (the sibling characters in that short story) was tossed over many times yet they still returned to underneath it. They were enslaved by the Dutch, but when the colonial world collapsed, instead of liberating themselves they again chose to be enslaved under the Japanese. When the Japanese were defeated, the pair again chose to be enslaved, this time by the returning Dutch. Happy to be perpetual slaves they refused to be free with their fellow Indonesians, deeming themselves “too good” to be with the natives!

History is replete with examples of external upheavals resulting in the inadvertent toppling of coconut shells. Trapped underneath we are not even aware up until then of the external cataclysms. All of a sudden we find ourselves in an entirely new, open and much bigger world.

Those who destined themselves to be eternal slaves like Pramoedya’s Sabu and Ina would find this new world far from welcoming; in fact downright frightening. Thus they scramble to find new coconut shells to hide under. For others, the external upheaval that toppled their shell would be a transforming event.

When the colonials entered the Malay world they certainly turned it upside down, flipping over our shell. We cursed them for disturbing our world but there would be no denying the ensuing good. For one, they ended the more odious aspects of our culture, like slavery and indentured labor. If not for the colonialists, I would today be an orang hamba (slave) at the istana (palace). The colonials also introduced modern education, through which I am what I am today.

The British gave us Munshi Abdullah. If not for them, Abdullah too would be another indentured laborer at the istana, and Malay literature would remain nothing more than chronicles of khayalan (fantasies).

Another global cataclysm was World War II. While the colonialists’ entry forced a sea change in Malay culture, the Japanese invasion triggered a momentous change in Malay psyche. Seeing those hitherto invincible white Tuans and their Mems scurrying in their Austins and Morris Minors chased by short yellow Japanese on rickety bicycles must have made quite an impact on the natives: The myth of white supremacy forever shattered! It is the dramatic destruction of this myth that emboldened Malays to pursue with even greater vigor our independence.

Short of such external upheavals we have to make our own effort to topple our shells from within. As alluded to earlier, for that to happen we must first be dissatisfied with our present condition. Progress, and thus change, depends on individuals not being satisfied with the status quo. Once we have this sense of dissatisfaction, or preferably anger, that alone would be enough to motivate us to topple and get out from under our shell.

How that is achieved will the subject of the next few sections.


Next: Liberation Through Information

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