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.
Much is at stake for Malays. Only those lulled by Hang
Tuah’s blustery Takkan Melayu hilang di
dunia (Malays will never be lost from this world) would pretend otherwise. History
is replete with examples of once great civilizations now reduced to footnotes.
At best they are but objects of tourists’ curiosities, as with the Mayans.
unlikely for Malay civilization to disappear; there are nearly a quarter
billion of us in the greater Nusantara world of Southeast
Asia. There is however, a fate far worse, and that is for Malaysia
to be developed but with Malays shunted aside, reduced to performing exotic songs
and dances for tourists.
about 17 million Malays in Malaysia,
comparable to the population of the Netherlands. Their colonial record
excluded, the Dutch should be our inspiration of what a population of 17
million could achieve.
Consider Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest
port. One expects that title to go to a port in Britain,
Germany, or Russia.
Then consider the following famous brands: Shell (petroleum), Phillips (electronics),
Unilever (consumer goods), Heineken (beer), and ING (financial services). Those
are all Dutch companies.
Hosts of eminent
organizations like the International Criminal Court and International Court of
Justice are headquarted in the Netherlands.
More remarkable is this. That country is behind only America
in agricultural exports, despite a quarter of its land being below sea level!
that to Malays and Malaysia.
Malays are in political control; non-Malays cannot challenge that; it is a
demographic reality. We have a land mass ten
times that of the Netherlands,
and none of it underwater, except when it rains and our rivers get clogged with
pollution. Then it seems the entire country is underwater, paralyzed and
gasping for air.
we could achieve even a tenth of what the Dutch have done! That should be our
goal and inspiration, not endless reciting of Hang Tuah’s immortal words or the
incessant hollering of Ketuanan Melayu.
being hoodwinked by the government’s glossy publications and our leaders’ rosy accounts.
Take the “Malaysian Quality of Life 2004 Report” produced by the Prime
Minister’s Department. At 113 pages, it is full of glossy pictures of
well-trimmed suburban neighborhoods, neat kampong houses, and of course the
iconic Petronas Towers. There is also a picture of
earnest executives engaged in videoconferencing, highlighting the latest
features the responsible minister, Mustapa Mohamed, beaming against the
backdrop of a lush, luxurious golf course. That image reveals more of the
truth, perhaps unintended; the golf course is exactly where you are likely to
find these ministers.
minister’s kampong in Jeli, Kelantan, and the reality would be far different. I
have no data specific on Jeli but a recent study of Pulau Redong and Pulau
Perhentian, islands off Trengganu, would shock anyone. A fifth of the villagers
have no formal education; half only primary level. This in 2011! Their average
income is less than what Indonesian maids earn. As a needless reminder, those
villagers are Malays.
shocking and reflective of the malaise, two-thirds of the respondents expect
“little” or “no change.” They have given up hope. So much for UMNO’s grandiose
promises on “protecting and enhancing” the position of Malays!
high-flying UMNO operatives visit the east coast they lodge at the exclusive Chinese-owned
Berjaya Resort, with taxpayers footing the bill. There they could partake in
video conferencing. For the islanders however, fewer than four percent have
Internet access. There is a thriving tourism industry but those jobs are out of
reach to the residents for lack of skills and education.
islanders’ world is a universe away from that of their fellow Bumiputras like
Women Affairs Minister Sharizat Jalil with her ultra-luxury condos courtesy of
hefty Bumiputra discounts and generous “soft” government loans.
New Economic Policy, Mahathir’s Vision 2020, and now Najib’s 1-Malaysia all
have the same aspiration of turning Malaysia into a developed nation. For
to be developed however, we must first develop its biggest demographic group –
Malays. So long as Malays remain backward, so will Malaysia. Tun Razak’s NEP recognized
this central reality. Vision 2020 and 1-Malaysia are eerily silent on it.
this glaring omission, Vision 2020 caught on, Mahathir’s domineering
personality snuffing out potential criticisms, at least while he was in power.
Najib is not so blessed personality-wise; hence his difficulty selling his 1-Malaysia
even to his party members.
problems would necessitate us to first address those of the Malays. That is the
focus of my commentaries. The accepted assumption is that by solving Malaysia’s
problems, those of the Malays would automatically be resolved, the rising tide
lifting all boats. Less appreciated is that a rising tide lifts only those
boats that are free to float. Those trapped under low bridges or with short
anchor rode would be swamped. For a rising tide to be a benefit and not a
threat we must first ensure that all boats are free to float; otherwise they
would be doomed.
Malay mind is equivalent to freeing our prahus,
of giving them adequate anchor lines or moving them away from under bridges and
other encumbrances. Today there are just too many Malay boats that are being
hampered. We must first free them; otherwise the rising tide would do them no
favor. It would only swamp them.
This essay is adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI
Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya,
May 24, 2015
Next week:Excerpt #4:The Curse of Our Obsession with Politics
The colonials imposed upon us and the world their narrative
of “the lazy native.” They also spun an equally fictional one for themselves –
the superiority of the white man. Both myths were needed to justify their
shattered that second myth. The sight of the “superior” white men hightailing
it, chased by the Japanese on their sardine can-made bicycles, emboldened Malays
to take on the hitherto-considered mighty British. That led to our merdeka. As
for the first myth, that too would have been busted had the Japanese Occupation
lasted longer. There were no lazy natives during the Occupation; the Japanese
made sure of that.
merdeka, in an ironic twist we substituted our own equally fictional narrative
of ourselves. This one, not surprisingly, puts us at the polar opposite of the
‘lazy native.’ We now view ourselves as the privileged “sons of the soil”
(Bumiputra). With that we declare our inherent superiority, taking a leaf from
the colonials. Ketuanan Melayu (Malay
hegemony) is but the latest incarnation of this new narrative.
we may have changed our story, the reality remains the same; we are merely
trading one mental coconut shell for another. That is no liberation.
good fiction, there is just enough truth laced with an exuberance of artistic
license to both the old colonial narrative of the lazy native as well as that
of our new privileged ‘sons-of-the-soil.’ Also like all good stories, there is
an underlying purpose to such narratives, apart from their being good yarns.
Discerning that would require us to undertake some introspection and even
greater critical analysis.
colonialists’ myths of the lazy native and noblesse
oblige justified their taking over our country and our rich resources. It
also justified their bringing in hordes of indentured labor from India and China. The colonials needed such a
narrative to sooth their collective conscience. They further assuaged it by
calling us “nature’s gentlemen,” a term only slightly less condescending than
purpose would our narrative of Ketuanan
Melayu serve? It is good fiction, as judged by its wide acceptance, much
like a “good” dime novel has wide readership. Also like a good novel, this Ketuanan Melayu myth has just enough
element of truth to it. We Malays are indeed “natives” of Malaysia; at least we have a better claim to
that than the Anglo Saxons have of Australia.
this narrative of Ketuanan Melayu, like
those Harlequin novels and soap operas, serves to encourage escapism into a
fantasy world. If that were so, the question remains as to what purpose.
not be far wrong if we were to, as the pundits put it, follow the money. Just
as those dime novels and soap operas make tons of money for their publishers
and producers, so too our narrative of Ketuanan
Melayu for its perpetrators.
It is not coincidental
that the shrillest proponents of Ketuanan
Melayu are also the most privileged of Malays – the UMNO Putras. These are
the ones with palatial bungalows, trophy wives, and children in private
schools, all made possible through political patronages, “Approve Permits,” and
eventually get punctured. That of the lazy native busted under its own weight.
Indications are that this has already begun with Ketuanan Melayu. A Malay has difficulty reveling in his exalted
privileged son-of-the-soil status around KLCC; he has difficulty finding a restaurant
that would serve him rendang.
Ketuanan Melayu too sense this
impending implosion; hence their preoccupation with creating new conspiracies
to bedevil us. First was the hantu of
globalization and capitalism. As that did not scare us enough, they concocted hantu pendatang (of immigrants). Meanwhile
we are being ensnared by the hantu of
a good story; indeed we need it. That
also reflects how our brain works. Our mind creates a narrative of ourselves
and of the universe, and our place within it. Our mind works hard to make that
story consistent. When new information intrudes that does not fit our existing
narrative, our brain re-interprets the new information to make it conform. When
our version of the world is far detached from reality, we become delusional.
That is schizophrenia, a serious mental malady.
feature of the brain that rivals its ability to edit non-conforming information
is its tendency to see the whole instead of the parts; hence the dominance of
Just like a
portrait can look very different depending on the frame, likewise our
perception of reality based on our mental frame. We pick a course of action
when it is framed as having an 80 percent chance of success over one with 20
percent chance of failure, despite both expressing the same thing. We drive
across town to “save” a dollar even if we have to spend more on getting there.
can be imprisoned by this framing effect. We Malays framed our dilemmas as one
of Ketuanan Melayu instead of our
lack of competitiveness, as it should be. All of our subsequent actions are
thus “framed” by this mindset.
with Ketuanan Melayu and the various hantus distracts us from recognizing and
facing our real existential threats – our laggardness in economics, education
and other arenas, as well as our deepening polarization and increasing
inequities within our community. Intra-racial inequities and polarization worry
me more than the inter-racial variety; I fear less another May 1969, more a
Malay civil war.
risk being cast aside by global currents. Even once xenophobic China is now
embracing globalization and capitalism, to the benefit of its people. In
contrast, our obsession with religion puts us right in the target of its
extremist elements, turning Malaysia
into another Iran or Afghanistan.
We need a new
narrative, one that reflects our true nature and the world we live in. If we
were to do so, our actions would be more productive and less disruptive. Even
if our new story were to have some fanciful elements, with an open mind,
associated humility, and willingness to learn, we could tweak and re-edit it to
conform to reality.
what a free mind does. With a closed mind our narrative would calcify, detaching
us from reality. We would then distort reality to make it conform to our warped
the Malay mind, and we topple our coconut shell. Information (freer access to
it), education (liberal and broad-based, with competence in science and
mathematics), and engagement in trade and commerce (capitalism – the genuine,
not the ersatz or rent-seeking variety) are the proven tools to topple our
coconut shell and prepare us for the wonderful open world.
the Malay mind and those hantus would
be exposed for what they are, figments of our wild imagination. A free mind
turns crises into opportunities. Liberate the Malay mind and we will re-frame
our dilemmas. Liberate our minds and we liberate our world.
Begin by acknowledging
the forces that have kept and are keeping our minds closed. Foremost are the
myriad intrusive and repressive rules, the mother of which is the Internal
Security Act. Those are instruments of oppression, not liberation. Then there
are our schools and universities, intent on indoctrinating rather than
educating our young. More entrenched is the corruption of our cultural values
where respect for leaders is mistaken as a license for them to indulge at our
expense. Most of all we must discard our myopic interpretation of our faith.
forces that have entrapped the Malay mind, and we are on our way to liberating
it. That essentially summarizes my book. What follows are but elaborations,
illustrations, and persuasions.
May 17, 2015
This essay is adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI
Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya,
Malays need to have minda
merdeka (free or liberated mind). We do not need another Melayu Baru (New Malay), Glokal Malay (contraction for global and
local), Ketuanan Melayu (Malay
hegemony), revolusi mental (mental
revolution), and other tired slogans. Those would all be for naught if our
collective minds remained trapped with their distorted views of the past and
present. Facing the future with a closed mind is not the way either, at least
not with any hope for success.
Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer published his highly-acclaimed Buru
Quartet novels soon after his release from Pulau Buru prison. When asked during
a book tour in America how he was able to craft such a wonderful work of art
while being imprisoned under the most inhumane conditions, Pramoedya replied,
“I create freedom for myself!”
what a free mind can do. Your body may be imprisoned and confined to total
darkness for 24 hours a day save for a ray of light peeking through the keyhole,
as Pramoedya was, but no one could imprison your free mind. Under such cruel
circumstances a mind that is not free could easily disintegrate, going wild and
berserk, which justifies the continued isolation and inhumane treatment.
Malays must create freedom for ourselves. Merdeka
Minda Melayu! (Liberate The Malay Mind!) This should be our new battle cry,
its rhythmic resonance and arresting alliteration trumping even Hang Tuah’s
immortal Takkan Melayu Hilang Di Dunia!
(Malays shall never disappear from this Earth!)
my choice of the title for this book is the recognition that the Malay mind has
long been entrapped. The challenges our community has been grappling with all
along can directly or indirectly be attributed to the fact that our collective
consciousness has been caged and consequently closed off to seeking out new and
the assertions of many, our problems are not rooted in the presumed
deficiencies of our biology or culture. Nor are they caused by colonialism
(traditional or the neo-variety), the pendatangs
(immigrants), capitalism, globalization, or even our supposed lack of unity. We
have been led to believe that these are problems, not opportunities. They will
remain so as long our minds are trapped. If we liberate our minds we will then
be able to view these challenges as opportunities, and begin to explore them as
such. That would be more productive, and the results would be more to our
been addicted to the comfort of life underneath the proverbial coconut shell
for far too long. Now with the shell breached by globalization and the digital
waves, it is dawning upon us that our “comfort” is anything but. There is a far
greater, more open, and definitely wondrous universe out there that we have
the coconut shell is no longer sustainable; for many it is already intolerable.
We can either topple this shell ourselves or risk having it done by external
forces. With the former we would be in command of our destiny; we could choose
the timing, manner, and consequently the outcome. With the latter, we would be
at the mercy of events and circumstances beyond our control; we would be
reduced to being victims, begging for the kindness and benevolence of others.
Hussein and his Republican Guards certainly thought they were very comfortable in
the desert, secure under their well-camouflaged shells. That is, until those
shells were literally blown apart by outside forces.
coconut shell cannot be physically destroyed as it is only metaphorical – our
closed minds. Besides, with the huge pores already created by globalization and
the digital revolution, many have already successfully emerged from underneath
that shell. The biggest danger is not so much that our shell will be toppled by
outside forces or through agitations from within, rather that the world would
ignore and leave us to rot underneath it, with only the mushrooms to sustain
be the fate that awaits those with a closed mind. Perhaps we could rationalize
that by adopting a “leave us alone” philosophy. Such an option however, is not
for us to choose but for others to impose.
If we do
not merdekakan minda kita, that is,
liberate our minds, others will define our destiny for us.
the future of Malays depends on, in Pramoedya’s words, our ability to create
freedom for ourselves. We would achieve this goal not through endless and
meaningless mass exhortations from our leaders rather individual at a time. A
Malay with a liberated mind is his or her own leader. We can dispense with the
current crop of leaders with trapped minds.
Adapted from M. Bakri Musa:
Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI
Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2013
Excerpt #5 (Last):Two
Black Swans and Many More Dark Crows
component of the toxic triad – Abdullah Badawi – is gone and no longer heaping
his share of trash upon the nation. As for UMNO, despite being the largest
party and a ruling one at the federal level for over the past half a century,
it never gets a foothold in Sarawak. Of the nine states in the peninsula, UMNO
is permanently wiped off in Penang, Kelantan, and Selangor. If the federal
territory of Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur were also a state, UMNO would be wiped
out there too. At one time it was also out in Perak, Kedah, and Trengganu.
only Najib. My earlier prediction of his premature ending as prime minister
notwithstanding (see “Priority of Packaging Over Performance’” page 119), he is
now secure at the top of the UMNO rubbish heap. To be the unchallenged skipper
of the Titanic is no job security; it
could very well undermine your well-being.
I am always
amazed at the ability of one person to initiate transformational changes. Often
those individuals are the ones we least expect. There is no rhyme or reason for
such individuals to emerge except that they somehow appear at the right time
and place, with all the right people to help him or her do the right thing in
the right manner; in short, the confluence of all the elements and the
alignment of all the stars.
1990s Indonesia was threatened to be ripped apart by its bewildering
centrifugal forces. Today it celebrates its peaceful democratic transition with
a new and promising leader in Joko Widodo. Further east, who would have
predicted back in the 1970s that a diminutive, uninspiring and uncharismatic
Deng Xiaoping would dismantle the handiwork of the colossal but destructive Mao
east across the Yellow Sea, in the 1950s the South Koreans depended entirely on
the spending of the hundreds of thousands of American GIs stationed there. Then
came General Park; today Samsung, Hyundai and LG are global household brand
At the same
time I do not underestimate the ability of one idiot to wreck untold damage
upon a nation while its citizens stand by and let it happen. Nearby there was
Indonesia’s Sukarno, further away Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, and in the not-too-distant
past, Iraq’s Saddam.
Thus I do
not underestimate Najib Razak to do likewise to the great nation of Malaysia if
Malaysians let him. I hope they would not.
suffered through two horrific man-made disasters in the span of just a few
months in 2014. The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 over the
South China Sea remains a mystery to this day. While we know what happened to
Flight MH17, the question remains of why a MAS plane? After all, a Singapore
Airlines jet had earlier flown a similar route while an Air India one was only
a few kilometers away.
“black swan” (rare, unpredictable) event occurs, it is natural for people to
look beyond the realm of the rational for an explanation. This is not an
affliction of only the uninformed and poorly educated. In part this reflects
the universal recognition that there is a greater power governing us all that we
have as yet to fully comprehend.
struck, many religious leaders insensitive to the pain of the victims’
relatives and friends called it divine retribution for America’s tolerance of
homosexual ways; likewise when Katrina broke the levees of New Orleans.
other end of the world, when the Asian tsunami hit northern Sumatra at
Christmas 2004, the iconic image that was seared into everyone’s memory was of
the lone mosque standing forlornly and unscathed amidst the sea of destruction
even an inkling of science knew that the tsunami was caused by a shift in the
earth’s tectonic plates deep in the floor of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of
Sumatra. That knowledge has profound consequences; it led to the creation of
ocean sensors that could detect those earth and giant wave movements well ahead
to warn those that may be affected. Along the coast of Japan and western North
and South America there are already early warning systems and clearly marked
evacuation routes. Indonesia did not have them then.
science-challenged Indonesian peasants saw things differently. To them, the
lone standing mosque was Allah sending them a message. The peace treaty that
ended the generations-long civil war in Aceh was signed soon after. Their
metaphysical interpretation of events too had a fruitful consequence.
dismiss or belittle the Indonesians’ belief, there is still the question of why
the tectonic shift had to occur there and at that particular time and not at
some remote uninhabited part of the Pacific. That defies science, at least as
we know it. Modern science offers only probabilities.
Malaysia suffered through two eerily similar “black swan” tragedies in the two
passenger-jet crashes, it was not a surprise that many looked for some
explanations beyond science. To be sure, a plane disappearing or crashing is
not a black swan event, but MH370 disappeared without leaving any trace,
incredulous in this day of round-the-clock ubiquitous satellite surveillance. That
tragedy still baffles the experts. As for the ill-fated MH17, while we all knew
what happened (it was shot down), still the question remains why a MAS plane
was the unfortunate victim.
obscure village alim says that the calamities were caused by MAS serving
alcohol, he can rightly be scoffed at and be ridiculed. By that theory Emirate
Airlines would have been a top casualty. However, when thoughtful commentators
like Kadir Jasin, the former editor-in-chief of The New Straits Times, and Zaid Ibrahim, a former cabinet minister
and successful corporate lawyer, alluded to bala
or divine retribution, then we are compelled to pause and reflect. This is
especially so when their views resonated with the general public.
many had taken figurative pot shots at MAS in the past. Stated differently,
long before these two black swans, the airline had had many dark crows. MAS
would long ago have been grounded, and many times too, had it not been for the
government coming in with expensive rescue bailouts.
units of the airline, like catering and maintenance, had been siphoned off to
UMNO cronies, and then MAS was forced to buy back those services at inflated
prices, converting what were once revenue-producing units into revenue-draining
ones. On another front, instead of pampering its customers, MAS was pampering
its employees, from ramp handlers to top executives. They all happily hogged
the company’s trough at the customers’ expense, and with taxpayers ultimately
paying the bill.
airlines were getting substantial discounts for their new planes and passing
those savings back to their companies, MAS was paying full retail price, with
the discounts going into the pockets of crony middle men “consultants” in
cahoots with top executives. Then there was that “brilliant” idea of selling
its headquarters in a prime Kuala Lumpur location and then renting space back
from its new owner. It’s akin to selling your house and then paying rent to the
new owner, adding another expense. This was what Pan Am Airlines did in 1970.
We all know what happened to that company.
was that wonderful scheme of financial engineering scheme dubbed WAU
(Widespread Asset Unbundling) where MAS sold its planes and then leased them
back. Again it was like selling its headquarters. Not owning your own planes is
a smart and effective strategy for a start-up airline; it conserves capital
that could be diverted to expanding its market. It is however a dumb move for
an established company to do so as that would only add another layer of costs.
The only ones wowed by that WAU scheme were the new owners of the planes and
the investment bankers who arranged the deal. That deal was also a cute play on
words as “wau” is Malay for kite, the
shares serve as a metaphor for Malaysia, then what happens to MAS the company
mirrors what happens to Malaysia the country. Previously reliable services like
power and water that were provided by competent public entities are now
privatized, sold at heavily discounted prices to favored political cronies.
These ersatz capitalists, pseudo entrepreneurs, and rent seekers came out like
bandits, but the pipes often run dry, and when they do flow, the water is not
fit to drink. Likewise with electrical supplies; they are erratic and with ever
government cannot forever protect MAS from the reality of an increasingly
competitive world. The price for bailouts keeps escalating and is no longer
sustainable. For MAS, the skid was greased by the entry of Air Asia at one end,
which cannibalized MAS on the domestic and regional front, and Singapore and
other Asian airlines like Cathay Pacific that chipped away at MAS’s long-haul
black swan, MH370 disappearance, exposed the incompetence of Malaysian leaders
on the world stage. Malaysians of course have been fully aware of this for a
long time. These leaders could not handle even simple queries from journalists
and the public. The astute political cartoonist Zunar captured well the
bumbling Najib. His biting cartoon depicting a “Too Weak” Najib “Two Weeks”
after MH370 was carried by The Washington
Malaysians too have been exposed to the reality of a highly competitive
globalized world. They now realize that the “education” they had received at
local institutions has been nothing more than indoctrination. Their low English
proficiency and abysmal communicating skills and critical thinking faculties do
not serve them well in the new marketplace.
I hope Malaysian
leaders would heed the wisdom of Zaid Ibrahim and Kadir Jassin, that is, treat
the two black swan events as the Indonesians treated their black swan of the
Asian tsunami. Keep the Malaysian house pure and in good order, free of what
displeases Allah, not to please Him but to please Malaysians.
and others in UMNO fail to heed this message, then Malaysians are duty bound to
remove them and give others the privilege to lead the nation