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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, June 05, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #68

Chapter 8: Culture, Institutions, and Leadership

The Blight of Broken Families


I am appalled and saddened at the statistics on the family, especially among Malays. The number of teenage marriages is truly obscene. These young girls are not ready for motherhood. Think of the potential for personal growth thwarted by such early marriages. Malaysia must enact a minimum age of at least 18 for marriage. The divorce rates too are horrifying. These are actual divorces and do not include such cases of de facto divorces, that is, when Malay husbands simply abandon their wives or take on multiple wives. When one examines the structure and dynamics of such abandoned families, they are no different from divorced households. The children of families of multiple wives are just as neglected as if the father had divorced their mother.

I am baffled and horrified that these Malays think that they can take care of their many children in absentia. There was a case in Johore where a man sired literally dozens of children through multiple wives. How can he be an effective father to his brood? Muhyiddin Yassin, a current federal cabinet minister and an UMNO senior vice president, has 48 siblings! His father, a respected ulama, had four wives. What kind of an example was he trying to set? If he wanted to emulate our holy prophet, why did he choose this particular trait? How could he have bonded with his multitude of children? The notorious terrorist Osama bin Ladin came from a family of 54 children! His father had numerous wives. No telling how many more children his old man would have had he lived to a ripe old age! Totally irresponsible! He made a mockery of the institution of marriage and family. I doubt he could even remember his children’s names, much less their birthdays and favorite toys. It is no surprise that Osama, like his father, also has multiple wives, an anecdotal affirmation of my earlier statement.

A rapidly emerging and pernicious influence on the Malaysian family scene is the widespread practice of delegating child rearing to maids. Every year the country imports thousands of illiterate women from poor neighboring countries to be domestic help. The dangers here are twofold. One, young Malaysians are fast turning into spoiled brats with their whims taken care of immediately by these maids. Two, these maids may unconsciously impart an alien value system on the young. It is one thing to have maids do the household chores so mothers could have some quality time to spend with their children, it is quite another to leave child rearing to foreigners.

If Malaysia were to import foreign workers, I would prefer them to be skillful programmers, creative musicians, and talented scientists. At least they would then impart their special talents onto locals. All these unskilled maids do is to make Malaysians feel smugly superior. It seems that the new status symbol in Malaysia is the number of household maids. The Australians have a per capita income considerably higher than Malaysians, yet they do not feel the need to import maids. The Australians have a totally different cultural value on child rearing.

I have only three children yet my wife and I had a tough time coping with their homework plus all the problems of growing up. Many Malays blithely take on many wives on the stupid pretext that because our prophet had multiple wives, Muslims too should do likewise. Why, of all the many sterling qualities of our holy prophet (pbuh), present day Malays choose to imitate this particular trait? They forgot that when Mohammad (pbuh) had multiple wives it was an expression of his charity, to take care of widows and orphans during times of social stress as in war, a far cry from the priapic propensities of today’s Malays.

The Chinese culture too has its own version of broken families: the habit of taking on concubines. With modern laws recognizing the children of such unions as legitimate heirs, such practices are now declining. The only redeeming aspect of communism in China is that it got rid of the concubinage.

Malaysia should emulate Turkey and Tunisia and ban polygamy, or if that raises the ire of fundamentalist Muslims, place strong disincentives. I suggest that before anyone takes on another wife, he must have a trust fund of RM 100,000 for the benefit of each child he already has. There are just too many irresponsible fathers even among the educated class. And divorced fathers must pay child support. In America, through court order, the paychecks of errant fathers are garnished to benefit their abandoned children.

Sadly, the Shari’a court system that has jurisdiction over family affairs of Muslims is a misogynist institution. Its record in protecting children and abandoned wives is abominable. One solution would be to give Muslim couples and families the option of choosing the civil court system if any one party requests it. Were this to happen, the monopoly of the Shari’a would be broken and then we would know how much faith people have in it. That would also serve as a stimulus for much-needed reforms of the system.

One critical area in need of great reform is divorce laws. The era when Muslim husbands could abandon their wives by simply declaring, “I divorce thee” three times (talak), makes a mockery of the sanctity of marriage. It takes a lot to get married in the first place, and divorce should not be undertaken lightly. Even more degrading to the institution of the family is the acceptance by the Shari’a of divorce pronouncements made by husbands on their cellular phones! The divorce provisions of the Shari’a must be reformed to reflect present day norms of gender equality.

Strengthen the family. This is not a women’s issue; it concerns everyone. Besides, it is the right thing to do. A stable family is the foundation of a strong society. Malaysia spends billions in trying to correct its myriad social pathologies, and is losing much more because of the lost potential of her blighted citizens. More resources must be diverted to strengthening the institution of the family. I am truly gratified that many Malaysian leaders beginning with Tun Razak had exemplary family lives. Both Mahathir and his present chosen successor, Abdullah Badawi, have not only carried on this fine tradition but they are also one of the few Malays who choose not to have multiple wives or large families.

There is in America today a growing appreciation that the failure of many minority groups to advance, despite affirmative actions and civil rights legislations, is attributable to the decline of the family in that subculture. Today, a Black child born into an intact family, that is one with a father and mother, is a definite rarity. Unfortunately there is no respite from this tragic trend. This sad reality is finally dawning on enlightened Black leaders. They are now desperately trying to reverse this trend by strengthening the family. Lest anyone would ascribe ugly racial undertones to these observations, this same negative trend is also seen among Whites. And as so wisely pointed out by Moynihan, at the turn of the 19th Century the same social pathologies seen in Blacks and Hispanics today were also seen among Irish immigrants. At that time it was the abrupt transition from country to city life compressed within a generation that was so immensely disruptive. Such a social milieu gave rise to the wild Irish slums of Boston and New York with their drunkenness, corruption, family disorganization, juvenile delinquency, truancy, and other social pathologies.

Malays today are undergoing a similar disrupting transition from a tranquil rural kampong life to a hectic urban one; all compressed within a generation. Such rapid changes take their toll on traditional institutions like the family. Thus it should not be a surprise that Malays are experiencing such social turmoil as reflected by the alarming rates of truancy, school dropouts, and divorce rates.

Despite a generation of affirmative actions and other special set-aside programs in America, Blacks and other minorities still lag behind. Well meaning legislations cannot undo or reverse the damage done by the disintegration of the family. Similarly in Malaysia, after more than a generation of ever increasing and more generous special privileges, Malays are still lagging. Sadly, many Malay leaders are falling back on the same old stereotype and clichés to explain this failure. I suggest that Malays still lag despite preferential treatment because the institution of the Malay family is being severely stressed and threatened. Unless the institution of the family is strengthened, no amount of special programs will help. There is simply no substitute for a strong, stable, and intact family.


Next: Leadership

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