The Curse of The Obsession With Single-Issue Politics
We Malays are obsessed – and cursed – with the single-issue
politics of bangsa, agama dan negara (race, religion and nation). We
have paid, and continue to pay, a severe price for this. Our fixation with
those three issues detracts us from pursuing other legitimate endeavors, in
particular, our social, economic and educational development. Perversely and
far more consequential, our collective addiction to bangsa, agama dan negara
only polarizes us.
and followers alike, have yet to acknowledge much less address this monumental
and unnecessary obstacle we impose upon ourselves. The current angst over hudud
(religious laws) reflects this far-from-blissful ignorance. With Malays over
represented in the various dysfunctional categories (drug abusers, abandoned
babies, and broken families), and with our graduates overwhelmingly
unemployable, our leaders are consumed with cutting off hands and stoning to
death as punishments for thievery and adultery. Meanwhile pervasive corruption
and endemic incompetence destroy our society and institutions. Those are the
terrible consequences of our misplaced obsession with agama.
If we focus
more on earthly issues such as reducing corruption, enhancing our schools and
universities, and on improving economic opportunities, then we are more likely
to produce a just and equitable society. That would mertabatkan (enhance
the status of) our agama, bangsa dan negara on a far more impressive
mistake, if we remain marginalized or if we fail to contribute our share, then
it matters little whether Malaysia is an Islamic State or had achieved
“developed” status, our agama, bangsa dan negara will be relegated to
the cellar of humanity. Our hollering of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay
Supremacy) would then be but a desperate and pathetic manifestation of Kebangsatan
Melayu (Malay Poverty).
For the first half of the last century, our fixation was, as
to be expected, on nationalism. Our forefathers were consumed with the struggle
to be free from the clutches of colonialism, and the right to be independent.
With merdeka a reality in 1957, the obsession then shifted from negara
to bangsa, from merdeka to bahasa (language). Today with
Malay language specifically and customs generally accepted as the national
norms, our mania has now shifted to agama.
passion for negara and bangsa had a definite and definable
endpoint (independence and Malay as the national language respectively), what
is the goal with our obsession on agama? ISIS Malaysia? And as for entry
into heaven, only Allah knows that.
forgotten, or are unaware in the first place, the price we paid for our earlier
obsessions. Consider our nationalistic fervor of yore. While we Malays were
consumed with treating the colonialists as white devils and fighting them,
non-Malays seized every opportunity to work with and learn from them. In our
smugness and misplaced sense of superiority we asserted that we had nothing to
learn from those colonials and outsiders, blithely ignoring the obvious
evidences to the contrary, just like the Japanese before the Meiji Restoration.
As a result
when independence came, non-Malays were much more equipped to take full
advantage of that fact while we Malays were still consumed with endlessly
shouting merdeka and rehashing an established reality. A decade later we
found ourselves marginalized while the non-natives were busy taking over
opportunities left behind by the British. Then like a wild boar caught in a
trap of its own making, we lashed out at everyone and everything, with ugly
consequences for all.
It took the
brilliance and foresightedness of the late Tun Razak to first of all recognize
the underlying pathology and then craft an imaginative and effective remedy.
As for our
struggle for independence, let me inject a not-so-obvious observation. Our merdeka
came less from the battles of our jingoistic warriors, more from British
realization that colonialism was no longer chic. Indeed it became an affront to
their sensibilities. I would be less certain of that conviction had our
colonizers been the Chinese or Russians. The Tibetans and Chechnyans will
attest to that.
We owe a
huge debt of gratitude to the British for another reason. They cultivated
sensible leaders amongst us and dealt harshly with the radicals. Consequently
we were blessed with post-independent figures like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun
Razak while spared the likes of Sukarno and Ho Chi Minh.
Had we been
less arrogant culturally and instead learned from the British, we would have
been able to give full meaning to our merdeka. There was much that we
could have learned from a nation that ushered in the Industrial Revolution and
the Scientific Age.
Folly of The National Language Obsession
The May 1969 race riot should have taught us the obvious and
very necessary lesson that we must prepare our people well so they could make
their rightful contributions and not be left behind. It did not. Instead we
shifted our obsession, this time to language. Bahasa jiwa banga
(Language the soul of a race), we deluded ourselves.
we sacrificed generations of precious and scarce Malay minds to the altar of
the supremacy of Bahasa. We also squandered what precious little legacy
the British had left us, specifically our facility with English. Imagine had we
built on that!
is now the national language, a fact affirmed by all. Less noticed or
acknowledged is that while non-Malays are facile with that language they are
also well versed in others, in particular English. Not so Malays, with our
leaders eagerly egging on our fantasy that knowing only Malay was sufficient.
English now the de facto language of science, commerce and international
dealings, not to mention the language of global consumers especially affluent
ones, our Malay-only fluency is a severe handicap. We are lost or ignored
abroad, or even in Malaysia within the private sector. Again we are being left
out because of our misplaced obsession.
part is that we are only now just recognizing this tragic reality. Deputy Prime
Minister Muhyyddin (who is also in charge of education) was stunned to learn
that our students fared poorly in international comparisons. He is still
stunned for he has yet to come up with a coherent solution.
Our Current Delusion with Religion
Judging from the current obsession with hudud, we
have learned nothing from our earlier follies with bangsa dan negara.
Faith is a
personal matter. This is especially so with Islam. Our Holy Book says that on
the Day of Judgment we would be judged solely by our deeds. We cannot excuse
them based on our following the dictates of this great leader or the teachings
of that mesmerizing ulama. Islam is also unique in being devoid of a clergy
class. There is no pope or priest to mediate between us and Allah, or a prophet
who died in order to expiate our sins.
vociferous and overbearing ulama class imposing itself upon us is a recent
innovation (bida’a) in our faith.
evident, this obsession with hudud does not bring Muslims together. Far
from it! Hudud also creates an unnecessary chasm between Muslims and
non-Muslims. Islam should bring us together.
the Koran is the word of Allah, its message for all mankind and till the end of
time. That is a matter of faith. While hudud is based on the Koran it is
not the Koran. The present understanding of hudud is but the version
interpreted by the ancient Bedouins. It is the handiwork of mortals, with all
its imperfections. We should not be bound by it but be open to more enlightened
readings of the holy book.
dearly for our earlier obsessions with race and nationalism. What would be the
price this time for our fixation with religion? Look at the Middle East today.
Ponder Nigeria with its Boko Haram. Contemplate being under the brutal ISIS,
the messianic Talibans, or the puritanical Saudis.
We have yet
to recover from our earlier follies with nationalism and Bahasa, yet we
blithely continue making new ones with our current obsession on religion. The
mistakes we make this time could well prove irreversible.
with this public fixation with religion. Instead focus on adil and amanah
(justice and integrity), the tenets of our faith. We cannot be Islamic if we
are devoid of both. This should be our pursuit, from eminent Malays to
not-so-eminent ones, from Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
leaders do not lead us there, then dispense with them and pursue our own path
forward. Unlike the earlier colonial era, this time there is no superior power
except for Allah to guide us find and groom enlightened leaders. We are on our
own. As per the wisdom of our Koran, Allah will not change our condition unless
we do it ourselves.
Bakri Musa’s latest book, Malaysia’s Wasted Decade
2004-2014. The Toxic Triad of Abdullah, Najib, and UMNO Leadership, has
just been released. It is available at major online outlets like Amazon.com.