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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, July 26, 2015

Najib's Nixon Moment


Najib’s Nixon Moment

M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com)


The Special Task Force and Parliamentary Committee investigating 1MDB (Najib Administration’s business entity) are missing the crux of the matter. They are distracted by and consumed with extraneous and irrelevant issues, either through incompetence or on purpose, as being directed to do so.

            The consequence is that what was initially a problem of corporate cash-flow squeeze has now degenerated into a full-blown scandal engulfing not only Najib’s leadership but also the national governance. The only redeeming feature is that for once a national crisis does not parallel the country’s volatile racial divide, despite attempts by many to make it so.

            Torrent of ink has been expended on that tattooed Swiss national now in a Thai jail, the suspension of The Edge, the threatened lawsuit against the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), and the blocking of the Sarawak Report website. These are but distracting sideshows. Even veteran and hard-nosed observers and commentators are taken in by these distractions.

            The central and very simple issue is this:  Did Prime Minister Najib divert funds from 1MDB to his private account as alleged by WSJ and others?

The issue is simple because it requires only a brief “Yes” or “No” response. If the answer is “Yes,” then all else pales in comparison.

If the answer is “No,” then we could proceed to such secondary issues as how much debt 1MDB has incurred, the extent of the government’s exposure, and whether the company could service its loans or even generate any revenue, as well as the related question of who leaked confidential bank and other sensitive financial information.

            Thus all, whether pro or anti Najib, should be asking him to answer that simple central question whether public funds were diverted to Najib’s account. That is the Malaysian Nixonian equivalent of “What did the president know and when did he know it?” of the infamous Watergate scandal of the 1970s.

            Queries that do not confront this central issue serve only to distract matters. Likewise the commentaries; they succeed only in exposing the biases and political leanings of their writers. We all can be spared of that, as well as the obvious sucking-up gestures by Najib’s flatterers.

            If Najib chooses to remain silent, then the parliamentary committee and special task force must focus their investigations to answering that basic question. They do not need the cooperation of the Monetary Authority of Singapore to do that. Nor do they have to travel to Thailand and interview that tattooed character, or subpoena that moon-faced chubby fellow who is so taken in with Paris Hilton.

            Arresting low-level employees like the company dispatcher would only divert resources and distract the staff. Instead there should be laser-like focus on ascertaining the central truth. All other matters as who leaked the incriminating information are secondary.

            This allegation of illegal diversion of public funds is made not by some kucing kurap anti-government blogger or a disgruntled UMNO operative deprived of his lucrative government contracts but by WSJ. The only way to rebut the damning allegation is to show that the documents laid out were false by producing your own evidence to the contrary.

            Alternatively, sue the publication. When the Financial Times alleged impropriety on the part of Tengku Razaleigh regarding the Bank Bumiputra fiasco of yore, he sued. And won; the rare occasion when that influential publication was humbled!

            If Najib were to sue WSJ, the ensuing depositions would uncover the truth. Lawsuits however, are expensive and protracted. All these hullabaloos would go away and confidence restored fast if Najib were to answer with a simple “No” to the central question, and if his answer were indeed the truth and could be substantiated as such. Then he can sue WSJ and everyone else.

            Tengku Razaleigh called upon those Malaysians who know the truth on this matter to come forward. There are only a few who are so privileged. They owe it to their fellow citizens to do so. As he so wisely put it, “Not telling the truth is not an option.”

            Malaysia however should not be held hostage to their honesty and integrity, or lack of either. We all must do our part to make sure that the truth be exposed.

            I am heartened by the reactions of our corporate leaders. Nazir Razak and Tony Fernandes, both widely admired and highly accomplished, have condemned the suspension of The Edge. They have done more; they praised the paper!

I applaud Nazir for another reason. What he did was another not-so-subtle rebuke to his oldest brother. He did it earlier as when he and his other brothers (minus Najib of course) reminded everyone that their father died leaving only a modest estate. In our culture, Nazir’s action took great courage. He did it in the finest Jebat tradition of fidelity to principle and country, over kin and leaders.

            We need others to do likewise. The Bar Council has taken an exemplary lead; likewise the Raja Muda of Johore and a former Mufti of Perlis. When exposing a crime is treated as a crime, the former Mufti reminded us, then we are ruled by criminals. The young prince upbraided politicians who are more loyal to their party than their fellow citizens.

            This 1MDB scandal threatens to not only bring down Najib but also damage Malaysia’s credibility, much like Nixon’s Watergate was to him and to America. It took the courage of Nixon’s closest allies in his own Republican Party to convince him to do the honorable thing. As a result, America was spared an unnecessary crisis, and a generous nation later forgave Nixon. With that, his monumental legacies, as with his engagement with China, remain intact.

            Najib does not have any positive legacy despite his over six years as Prime Minister, longer than Nixon was as President. Nonetheless Najib could still save his skin if he were to do the honorable thing – tell the truth.

            If he does not, then it is up to those closest to him to do the honorable thing – tell him the truth. The chance of that happening however, is remote as UMNO is bereft of courageous individuals who could see beyond their party (and its lucrative patronage) and tell it straight to Najib’s face.

            Deputy Prime Minister Muhyyiddin’s belated protest is too little, too late. It is also self-serving. Now if he were to resign in protest, that would mean something. Meanwhile as a member of Najib’s cabinet, he and the other ministers are collectively responsible and should be held jointly accountable.

            The only person who could force Najib would be Barisan’s Sarawak leaders, in particular Chief Minister Adenan Satem. His support is critical to Najib. Thus far Adenan is satisfied with squeezing the maximum out of Najib in his hour of crisis to benefit Sarawak. In the long term however, Adenan should remember that Sarawak, like the rest of the country, would progress only if the central government is competent and honest. An inept, corrupt and distracted central government would be detrimental to all, Sarawak included.

            It is time for Najib to do or made to do a Nixon. If Najib were to do it voluntarily then he could control the timing and to some extent, subsequent developments. Specifically he could choose his successor. Nothing in the constitution mandates that his current Deputy be the one.

If he were to pick Tengku Razaleigh, a man of proven leadership and impeccable integrity, not only would that meet widespread approval including within Parliament, he would have secured for himself a significant legacy. He would also better his nemesis, Tun Mahathir, in one respect. The Tun chose two duds as his successors and in the process wasted a precious decade for Malaysia.

            Najib’s personal fate does not interest me. He could suffer a Marcos for all I care, but if Malaysia were to degenerate into another Philippines because of Najib, then those who remain silent or don’t take a stand now must bear some responsibility. How would they answer their grandchildren’s lament?

            May God bless those many brave and righteous Malaysians who have done and continue to do their part, and at great risks. I salute them! We must remain focused on the central issue:  Did Najib embezzle those funds?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Thoughts At The End of Ramadan - On Being A Muslim


Thoughts At The End of Ramadan – On Being A Muslim

M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com

A Muslim is one who subscribes to the five pillars of our faith – attests to the oneness of Allah and Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., as His Last Messenger (shahadah); prays five times a day; fasts during Ramadan; gives zakat; and conditions permitting, undertakes the Hajj.

            Significant for its absence is any explicit reference to the Koran, the complete and final guide from God “for all mankind, at all times, and till the end of time.”

            The essence of the Koran is Al-amr bi 'l-ma’ruf wa 'n-nahy ani 'l-munkar. It is referred to many times in the text. The approximate translation is, “Command good and forbid evil;” or in Malay, “Biasakan yang baik, jauhi yang jahat.” Succinct and elegant in both languages as it is in the original classical Arabic!

As this central message is not one of the five pillars of our faith, no surprise then that it is frequently missed by the masses. It is also often lost in the thick tomes of religious scholars, erudite sermons of bedecked ulamas, and frenzied jingoisms of zealous jihadists.

Enlightened scholars of yore had suggested that the Koran’s essence be the sixth pillar, after and presumably below Hajj. That did not gain traction.

As my Imam Ilyas reminded us in his Eid khutbah last Friday, those five pillars of Islam demand the least from us. They are the easiest undertakings. Shahadah could be executed in a single breath even for those unfamiliar with the Arabic tongue, while the daily prayers consume a few minutes longer. For those who consider the month-long Ramadan a challenge, consider that millions do without their meals every day, and with no end in sight. As for zakat and Hajj, both have finite and quantifiable costs.

The greatest challenge for Muslims then is not those five imperatives rather to “command good and forbid evil.” That would demand the most from us. As such, it should be priority number one. For even if you were to diligently perform all those five traditional duties, but if you do not do good and refrain from evil, then all would be for naught.

There is no point in donating zakat if your wealth is acquired through corruption. Whatever religious “brownie points” you would garner from that seemingly generous gesture could not begin to compensate for the loss to the family whose child had died because the money meant for the local hospital had been siphoned into your pocket. Likewise, you mock the sanctity of the Hajj if on returning you resume condemning your fellow believers even before the cough from your desert-induced irritated throat had not yet cleared up.

A saying attributed to our prophet has it that a prostitute was admitted to Heaven because she once saved a dog dying of thirst by bringing it a bowl of water. Performing the rituals of the five pillars would not be a regular routine for someone like her. Yet an All-Forgiving and Generous Allah rewarded her for that single good deed.

If that simple act of kindness is so esteemed, imagine how much more generous Allah would be to a veterinarian! Yet many were outraged when Muslim veterinary students were handling their ‘patient’ pigs and dogs.

Philosophers through the ages, Muslims and non-Muslims, atheists and believers, have pondered the meaning of good and evil. Believers have also wrestled with the added issues of God’s will and individual responsibility.

Al-Asha’ari posed this theological dilemma. Imagine a child and an adult in Heaven. The child asked God why the man was given that privilege. The reply was that he had done much good in his lifetime. (Note again the emphasis on doing good!) The child then asked why God had taken him so soon thus preventing him from doing good later in his life. To which the reply was that God knew that the child would become a sinner and thus spared him the terrible fate. Thereupon cries arose from those condemned, “Oh Lord! Why didn’t you take us before we became sinners?”

While such ponderings make for vigorous class discussions, at the practical level the issue of good versus evil is clear and not at all complicated. Killing, stealing and cheating are all evil; improving the lot of your people, making sure that they have potable water, adequate shelter, good schools and competent healthcare, is good. Putting public funds into your bank account is evil. No equivocation there. Yet many go through contortions to make evil appear good. That in itself is evil.

Jonathan A C Brown in his book Misquoting Muhammad relates an episode when the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar was asked by the country’s powerful ruler about passages in the Koran and hadith to make his rule “Islamic.” Bring justice and prosperity to your people, the Grand Mufti replied, and I will find the appropriate verses to sanctify your policies as Islamic.

Yes, bring justice, improve citizens’ lot, obey the rule of law and respect citizens’ rights, those are the proven paths to an Islamic state; not grandiose mosques, bloated religious departments, or Azzan blasting on your radios.

As to whether going against a leader who is corrupt and abuses his power is good or evil, ponder the last line of Caliph Abu Bakar’s immortal inaugural speech. “Obey me so long as I obey Allah and His Messenger. And if I do not, then I have no right to your obedience.” (Approximate translation.)

Do good not only to others but also equally important, to ourselves. That means nurturing and being generous to ourselves, while distancing from those who would harm and abuse us.

“Others” refers both to the living as well as physical world around us. We can readily comprehend about being good to our fellow humans or other living creatures, but less appreciated is that we must also be good to our physical world. We are but trustees (vice-regents) of this universe, says the Koran. 

Illegal logging is evil not only because it is stealing from the people but also because the activity degrades the environment, causing erosion, silting of rivers, and consequent flooding. You may accrue untold riches from illegal logging and be generous in your zakat but those do not compensate for the miseries you caused fishermen whose fishing grounds are destroyed or families made homeless from the resulting floods.

I prefer my own Malay translation of the golden rule. Its rhythmic alliteration aside, it is soft and subtle yet no less powerful, in tune with our culture. Biasakan yang baik, or make doing good your habit or norm. Meaning, not because you are commanded to do so, rather it’s in your nature or character.

Likewise with jauhi yang jahat, or distancing ourselves from evil. We may not always be able to forbid evil, or doing so would impose considerable risks, but we all can move away from evil.

Biasakan yang baik; jauhi yang jahat is truly a message for all mankind, at all times, and till the end of time. Joyous Hari Raya is an appropriate occasion to be reminded of this.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Leader's Massive Ego to Change A Culture

A Leader's Massive Ego in Attempting to Change A Culture 
 
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa,com

Terrible things are done in many cultures in the name of honor. To some, the natural reaction would be either smug dismissal (those barbarians!) or comforting acceptance (all cultures have their warts!). That would also provide a ready excuse for continuing on business as usual.

        Or we could have wannabe heroes or even real ones with a messianic mission to change that culture. Many have tried, and equally many have failed. For Malays, there was Mahathir, and before him, Datuk Onn. Undoubtedly there will be many more.

       This wanting-to-change-our-people (or culture) zeal is a particular delusion of leaders with massive egos. Our only solace is that Onn and Mahathir did not do more damage. The Chinese under Mao were not so lucky. Millions perished under his Cultural Revolution and other dubious endeavors aimed at "changing" his people.

       This preamble is merely to put forth three main points. The first is that the values of any culture are internally consistent; culture is essentially the keeper of society's values. Customs, rituals and other accouterments of culture must be assumed to be positive; there is no such thing as a "bad" culture, as it would have been eliminated a long time ago. Each culture should thus be examined on its own terms and not by comparison to others.  This truism makes such calls as "Be more like the Chinese!" or "Muslims need our own Martin Luther!" be so much wasted breaths. 

       The American anthropologist Franz Boas was the first to put forth this proposition. This cultural relativism does not mean that there are no absolutes or universalities in human values. Killing and inflicting harm on your fellow humans are evil deeds in all cultures. On the other hand, "honor" is also another cultural absolute and universal value. In this way killing becomes justified in the name of honor. Patriotism is another variation of honor; we kill "them" so as to protect the honor of "our" country, or variations thereof.

       The second point is that meaningful differences in the various cultures would be manifested only when they intersect. That seems obvious. When the early Chinese came to Malaysia in the 15th Century, they did so with no intention to dominate. They had no colonial aspirations. Consequently, the two cultures melded freely, with the Sultan of Melaka marrying a Chinese and those immigrants learning Malay and adopting the trappings of Malay culture, as with their songs and daily attire. 

       As no one was concerned with dominating or demonstrating self-proclaimed superiority over the other, there was no corresponding obsession with maintaining one's racial or cultural purity.

       Likewise when the South Indians landed in the northwestern part of the peninsula, they mixed and intermarried freely with Malays. A generation later their descendents became ministers, governors and even a prime minister. If they were Ketuanan Melayu champions at the time, no one batted an eyelid.

       This natural tendency for cultural osmosis and mutual adaptation would vanish if one culture's avowed purpose was to dominate, as with the arrival of colonial powers. The dynamics of the interaction would then change dramatically.

       When the Europeans landed on the Malay world, they were motivated initially by their capitalistic instinct to monopolize the lucrative spice trade. It did not take long for that to degenerate into total domination in all spheres, especially political. Thus colonialism was born, and with it, the ranking of native cultures vis a vis colonial ones.

       The colonials believed that it was their burden, imposed no less by their God, to "elevate" those natives. To reinforce that collective mindset, they had to create certain myths, like that of the "noble savage" (to grant those natives a modicum of respect; they are savages nonetheless and thus needed to be "tamed") and the "lazy native."

       The reaction of the natives too was governed by their cultural values. The Indians, accustomed to their rigid caste system, readily accepted the superior role of the colonials. Those white men and women became the new "super upper" caste, towering over the native maharajahs and Brahmins. That was the only conceivable explanation to account for the ease with which the British with only a few thousand colonial civil servants could rule hundreds of millions of Indians spread over an entire continent.

       The Malay reaction to colonialism was very different, again governed by our culture. Ingrained in our culture never to challenge a ruler, we did not directly do so with the colonialists, except for a few brave souls. They were readily and brutally disposed of, their corpses desecrated as a grim reminder to those who would be similarly tempted. Just to be sure, the British co-opted our sultans so that any revolt would be not just against the British but also our sultans, Allah's representative on earth.

       The only avenue left for Malays who still had streaks of independence was to undertake what psychologists refer to as passive-aggressive resistance, utilizing the technique of quiet non-cooperation. That is the only weapon of the weak, to borrow James C. Scott's phrase, and that was how we chose to oppose the British.

        My third point is that since culture is the aggregate behaviors and attitudes of its members, it is the height of arrogance for anyone to even attempt to change a culture. Any change must by definition come from the ground and not be imposed from above. If only Onn and Mahathir, or Mao, had known this, they would have been spared much grief. For Mao, he would have spared millions of his people even greater misery.

        This does not mean that culture cannot be changed; indeed change is a constant with any culture, only that the adaptation must originate with the masses. Often these changes are slow and subtle, their cumulative effects not evident till generations later. Others may be more rapid or even dramatic as when triggered by major social or physical upheaval imposed on that society. 

       Such tumultuous physical or social stresses would not automatically bring about changes in the culture, only that such events would provide the opportunities for that. This is the only time when leadership could prove decisive. Without such a leadership, that society and culture would quickly degenerate, becoming dysfunctional and unable to survive. Absent those tumultuous changes, the role of leaders would be minimal; change could only come from below and within.

This essay is based on the author's latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

Next:  The True Measure of A Culture

Monday, July 06, 2015

Culture IS Internally Consistent

 Culture Is Internally Consistent

Every group of humans whether dwelling in the same cave or working for the same corporation must share some common goals, values, and worldview, as well as everyday routine practices. This is what culture means; it is the social glue that binds the members together and differentiates them from others. Far from being society's oppressor, culture is its savior.

The human baby is not born a carnivorous hunter or a vegetarian ascetic anymore than it is born an Aryan or Chinese. The baby may have Aryan characteristics (sharp nose, blond hair, and blue eyes) or that of a Chinese (moon face, jet black hair, and epicanthic folds) but those features do not make what it will be. Whether that baby will turn out to be a proud bearer of a swastika or marches the streets waving Mao's Little Red Book depends upon the culture in which it has been raised.

Tune to BBC News. If you close your eyes you would assume the announcer to be a lithe English lassie. Look at the screen and your preconceived images would be shattered for behind that flawless British voice might be a lady of African descent or a Semitic-looking Arab woman, minus the purdah of course.

The process by which a group instills its collective ways and values upon its new members - acculturation - is by nature conservative, to uphold prevailing norms and standards. The dark-skinned BBC announcer could not possibly sound so elegantly authoritative had she been brought up in Southside Chicago or a Soweto township.

I had a childhood friend back in the old village. Born as I was during the terrible deprivation of the Japanese Occupation, his family, like so many poor Chinese families in rural Malaysia at that time, was forced to give him up. Growing up in his adopted Malay family, he was no different from the rest of us. I was not even aware that he was adopted despite his obvious non-Malay features.

Later as a teenager he became extremely chauvinistic, espousing fanatical sentiments of Malay nationalism. Even that did not trigger any irony on my part. On one occasion he was particularly virulent in his denunciations of the immigrants while within hearing distance of my parents. When he was gone my father laughed, remarking that someone ought to hold a mirror to my friend's face whenever he was indulging in his racial demagoguery. Only then did it register on me that he was Chinese looking. The incongruity of his being a Malay supremacist!

My digressing short story here must have an uplifting ending. My friend did indeed outgrow his adolescent delusions and become a successful businessman with a multiracial and international clientele. Today he is the paragon of the liberal, progressive Malay, the ones the PERKASA (the acronym of a Malay ultra right wing group) types love to hate.

Just as my friend's upbringing (his acculturation) turned him into an insular, chauvinistic nationalist, his later vocation reformed him into an open, worldly businessman. Later, I will pursue this unappreciated but important role of trade and commerce in liberating minds.

Culture provides the backdrop for much of our learning and experiences, as well as the environmental (both physical and social) stimuli that our brain is exposed to. These are what shape our view of reality, or in the language of neuroscience, the subsequent patterns of neural networks. Culture conserves the values and norms of that society and transmits them unchanged to the next generation.

Culture is also internally consistent even though to outsiders some of its norms and practices may appear destructive or non-productive. To the Mafia of southern Italy, being violent and vengeful are valued traits, to maintain family 'honor.' In not-so-ancient China members of the triad maintained their strict code of silence through uncompromising and merciless enforcement; the price for breaching being gruesome death. Then there are the "honor killing" of the Pashtuns and the self-immolation suttee where a widowed Indian would throw herself on her husband's funeral pyre.

Those destructive acts must have served some purpose otherwise the culture would have abandoned them long ago. The Chinese code of silence was perhaps a protective reaction to the brutish local warlords, while "honor killing" and suttee were meant to demonstrate the supreme value of family honor and marital fidelity. In that culture a widowed woman would be treated so harshly and discriminated against so mercilessly that she would be driven to prostitution or home wrecking.

To someone from a culture where infidelity is the norm (if we can believe Hollywood movies and the scandals involving Bill Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger), suttee and honor killing seem barbaric and way out of proportion.

Likewise hudud's stoning to death for adultery; to Muslims it reflects the sanctity of marriage and the high premium we place on marital fidelity. Humans being human, the culture does provide an outlet to minimize the possibility of imposing this harsh penalty; thus multiple wives or even "temporary" ones. The ancient Chinese accepted concubines.
 
As an aside, despite hudud's current notoriety, it is well to remember that during the four centuries of Ottoman rule, the actual number of cases of "stoning to death" was only one. Compare that to the number of deaths through suttee burning and gentleman's duel.    

The Anglo Saxons' "duel unto death" is on the same plane as suttee and honor killing; the difference merely in means and methods. The underlying principle and end result are the same - a matter of "honor" and the senseless taking of a life respectively. It illuminates my point that culture is internally consistent. It is futile for anyone, especially outsiders, to pick and choose a particular element of a culture and pronounce it regressive or uncivilized. The true and only meaningful test of a culture is how it prepares its people to stresses and changes, especially when those are sudden and dramatic, or imposed from the outside.

      I will use this criterion to grade the resiliency of our Malay culture in meeting the challenges posed by the arrival of Islam, European colonization, and the path we chose to pursue independence.
 
This essay is excerpted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

Next July 5 Excerpt # 8:  Changing a Culture