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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, April 20, 2011

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 7 of 14)

Avoiding Being Entrapped Mentally

[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.]


Once we have adapted to our new open world, we need to reflect on how was it that we were under the coconut shell in the first place. More importantly, how do we prevent ourselves from being entrapped again? Can we inoculate ourselves against such a terrible fate?

As we contemplate these issues, it is well to be reminded of two major insights of modern neuroscience. One is the remarkable plasticity of the human brain, its almost infinite capacity to adapt and learn. The other, almost as the counterpoint, is the concept of, “Use it or lose it!” That is, if we do not exercise a particular mental faculty we will lose it, and much sooner than we expect. Thus if we do not exercise our free mind and critical faculty, our mind will inevitably become captive, or “un-free” and uncritical, blindly accepting everything thrown our way; our coconut shell again engulfing us.

This “use it or lose it” truism is illustrated by the “lazy eye” syndrome of childhood. Here we have one eye – the lazy one – which because of weakness of its muscles or some other problem sends imperfect images to the brain. The brain, to avoid confusion with the images from the good eye, learns to ignore those faulty images. With time the neural pathway from that lazy eye to the brain will atrophy from disuse, and you will get what is called “optical blindness” of that eye. There is nothing anatomically wrong with the lazy eye, at least as an imaging system, it is just that the brain has effectively ignored it, and now that eye is “lost” or blind to the brain.

Effective treatment must begin early before the atrophy of this neural pathway and optical blindness sets in. It involves patching the good eye so as to force the brain to decipher the images transmitted by the “lazy” eye. Meaning, create the neural pathway, and once that is well established, the patch can then be removed from the good eye.

This “use is or lose it” principle also applies to human nature. It is this that worries me most about our obsession with special privileges. Whatever noble intentions our forefathers may have had when they included those provisions in our constitution, there is no denying that these privileges have now eroded our competitiveness. As we have not had to use that faculty, we have lost it. Today we are led to believe that we need not learn English or strive hard in order to succeed. Special privileges have ingrained in us the expectation that our government will always provide for us by virtue of the fact that we are Malays.

Special privileges have now degenerated to become an end unto themselves instead of being the means towards an end, of making Malays competitive. We are less concerned with the results and more with the process.

This is the powerfully destructive effect of Ketuanan Melayu. It has hooked and narcotized us. These privileges have blunted our competitiveness, corrupted our community, and degraded our maruah (values). We are fast being reduced to being wards of the state. It is difficult to hold your head high when you are in that state.

Worse, we transmit these destructive values to our children and grandchildren, effectively condemning them to perpetual enslavement, as generations before and following Sobi and Inah in Pramoedya’s Djongos dan Babu.

We delude ourselves into thinking that with Ketuanan Melayu we are destined to be Tuans (masters) of Tanah Melayu (Malay Land). We need not strive; it is our destiny, presumably ordained by Allah. Others have no such delusion; they have to work hard. Consequently a just and fair Allah has rewarded them amply, they have now become the de facto (matter of fact) Tuans of Tanah Melayu.

Meanwhile Malays, especially our leaders, are reduced to howling like a fox in the middle of the night proclaiming endlessly that we are still the de jur (by force of law) Tuans of Tanah Melayu. Read the constitution, they howled!

Before non-Malays feel superiorly smug, let me assure them that this weakness is not unique to Malays. It is a universal attribute. In China, those princelings of the Politburo members do not have to work hard either. They too have their future laid out on a red carpet, with guarantees of privatized state enterprises and fat government contracts. Westerners used to generous social safety net of their modern welfare state have lost their ability to compete with eager and hungry competitors from emerging countries. The elaborate safety net of Western societies, crafted with the noblest of intentions, has now degenerated into a comfortable hammock.

A secure safety net emboldens us to strive for new heights; a comfortable hammock tempts us to doze off the afternoon. This is a lesson particularly difficult to learn, especially by our leaders.

There is a bright side, in the form of the other insight from neuroscience: the remarkable plasticity of our brain. The human character too is likewise, ready to adapt to new realities, given the chance. Consider our recent history.

Malays were once known for our political apathy and placidity. We were not even interested in running the affairs of our country; we left that to the colonialists. Our sultans gladly sold out our country and heritage to the British through the Malayan Union agreement in return for pittance in royal allowances and glorified titles of some ancient English order.

Yet under the enlightened leadership of Datuk Onn, we were transformed. We successfully rescinded that obnoxious treaty, despite the sultans having already signed it. Today, politics is in the veins of every Malay, a remarkable cultural transformation in so short of time. Perversely today we are at the other extreme, with politics seducing and infecting many promising Malay talents, thwarting their personal and professional development.

I will return to Datuk Onn later. For now, suffice to say that although he was a civil servant under the colonialists, it did not stop him from having a free mind. He was anything but menuggu arahan (awaiting orders) from his British superiors.

Contrast Onn’s free-mindedness to today’s leaders. To a person they are nothing but Pak and Mak Turuts (“me too” leaders). A generation under the mercurial Mahathir, and they have lost their critical faculties. Do not expect greatness from them. Mahathir has long exited the political stage, yet Prime Minister Najib behaves like a poorly-trained lap dog eagerly awaiting its trainer’s approval.

We might be tempted to blame our leaders, and only them, for our current travails. Certainly, reading the current commentaries one could easily conclude that all our problems are due to the shortcomings of our leaders, in particular Mahathir. We conveniently forget that leaders must have followers.

We deserve the leaders we get; after all we voted them in. However, our responsibilities as followers do not end there. Saddam Hussein did not become the tyrant that he was overnight; nor did Robert Mugabe become obscenely corrupt the day he assumed power. I am certain that both started out with the noblest of intentions. Somewhere along the line their followers allowed them to get away with some minor transgressions; these leaders then became emboldened. The slide towards monstrosity was thus greased.

Today I hear many severe critics of Mahathir and Abdullah Badawi, including some senior UMNO members and respected academics. Where were they when the nation desperately needed some checks and balances?

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, criticizing his own “Javanism,” observed that it is this unthinking loyalty and blind obedience to a superior that eventually leads to fascism. Pramoedya knew a thing or two about fascism, having been its victim under Suharto’s “Ode Baru” (New Order).

Observe this picture of Minister Rais Yatim bowing deeply to kiss Prime Minister Abdullah’s hand. Also, notice Abdullah’s oblivious smirk and nonchalant gaze directed elsewhere. Is this a display of abiding respect or obsequious loyalty?

Judging from this behavioral display, do you expect Rais to voice his concerns should Abdullah be tempted to do something stupid? This was how Saddam Hussein evolved to be the monster that he was because he had a team full of characters like Rais Yatim, more concerned with showering fealty to their leader than keeping him in check. The body language displayed by Abdullah in this picture bespeaks of, to use the language of the street, “I’ve got you by your balls!”

Regardless of the cultural component, this is not the way to demonstrate respect. Instead, do your job well and you bring credit not only to your superior but also yourself. That is how you show respect for your leader. Another would be not to embarrass him by for example, your less-than-exemplary behaviors in public or private.

Rais’s personal behaviors towards his domestic help, now widely reported by the international wire services as the consequence of the Wiki leaks, brought disrepute not only to himself but also Prime Ministers Abdullah and Najib; indeed the whole nation. Rais has since denied the lurid accusation but he has not addressed the maid’s leaving.

There was another Wiki leak where senior Singapore officials disparaged Malaysian leaders and bragged about having “physical evidence” implicating Anwar Ibrahim, then Deputy Prime Minister, in his alleged sex crime. In both this and the Rais maid scandal, no one bothered to look at the underlying apparent breaches of national security. How reliable is our national security apparatus such that secret “physical evidence” concerning a Deputy Prime Minister could land in foreign hands, or the ease with which ministers could be potentially blackmailed? Imagine if those maids had been recruited by intelligence units of unfriendly foreign governments!

So far no leader has shown awareness much less addressed this critical issue. Such is the quality of our current leaders! This is also good point to transition to the next topic, the mind of a future leader.



Next: The Mind of A Future Leader

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