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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.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Malay Schizophrenic Response to British Colonialism

Malay Schizophrenic Response to British Colonialism
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com
 
Malays actively shunned and refused to participate in the various colonial endeavors even those that could potentially benefit us. Instead we undertook a form of passive resistance, utilizing what John C Scott refers to as “weapons of the weak.”
 
     While these everyday forms of passive resistance may not grab headlines, nonetheless they are akin to the cumulative accumulation of the coral reefs. In the aggregate and over time they exert a profound impact. When the ship of state runs aground on such reefs, attention is directed to the shipwreck and not to the aggregations of petty acts that made those treacherous reefs possible.
 
     So was the Malayan Union initiative shipwrecked upon a reef of resentment and resistance that had quietly been building up and concretized over time.
 
     Of course the weapon of the weak had its price. As those brave little acts of defiance did not fit the colonials’ narrative of us as being “nature’s gentlemen,” they had to invent new ones. Thus was born the myth of the lazy native that later became the colonialists’ convenient justification for bringing in those indentured laborers.
 
     Those tribulations notwithstanding, we should realize that even in the most evil system there are slivers of good and of individuals with goodwill within it. In our rightful condemnation of colonization we must also be aware of the good colonization had brought to our society, whether those were intentional or merely unintended consequences.
 
     Then there were those enlightened colonial officers who were sympathetic to our cause. There was for example, R J Wilkinson who was instrumental in setting up Malay College in 1905, and Richard Winstedt, the Sultan Idris Training College in 1922.
 
     The British also outlawed some of the more odious aspects of our culture, like slavery and indentured labor (orang hamba). They also brought in modern education and the rubber industry. Yes, they also burdened our land with a race problem that we are still grappling with.

     Seeing that we could not possibly prevail if we were to frontally confront the colonials, nonetheless we could have through our leaders arranged a workable accommodation instead of shunning the colonials entirely. Then they would not have to import those cheap foreign labors. More importantly, the colonials then would not have to concoct those ugly myths about us.
 
     With our leaders’ encouragement we could have participated in those colonial ventures and learned something from them, much like Munshi Abdullah did. Likewise, had we not projected wholly evil motives on the part of the colonials we could have encouraged our children to attend the much superior English schools. Had we done so, our community would not have been left so far behind come time of independence.
 
     After all, our leaders (including and especially the sultans) readily corroborated with the colonials. They unabashedly absorbed the ways of the English and lapped up any scrap of British title bestowed upon them. The sultans and aristocrats did not hesitate in sending their children to English schools, even their daughters to those “convents.”
 
     Our leaders should have likewise encouraged the rakyats to do the same and not have double standards – one for them and another for the rest. Our leaders were hypocrites in being shameless anglophiles while condemning the colonials in front of the rakyats.
 
     This was in stark contrast with the way we dealt with the coming of Islam. Both leaders and rakyats were honest with each other; we were all on the same wavelength, each supporting the other in their collective and united response to this new force.
 
     Another reason I did not give top marks to our encounter with colonization was this. We failed to differentiate the significant differences between the various colonizers. They may all be Europeans, but there were vast differences between the Dutch and Portuguese on one hand, and the British on the other. For the Dutch, look what they did to Indonesia; for the Portuguese, Angola and East Timor.
 
     As far as colonials go, the British were slightly on the benign side; their Anglo Saxon ethics and sense of fairness are worthy of our emulation. Besides, being the nation that ushered in the Industrial Revolution they had something to teach the world, and that included Malays.
 
     Had we embraced the technological modernization that the British had to offer just as enthusiastically as we did the spiritual values of Islam, we could have had the best of both worlds; the British for our material and worldly needs; Islam our spiritual and “other worldly” yearnings.
 
     That we did not embrace the modernization brought in by the British reflected our own insecurity with Islam. We feared that the infidel colonials would “contaminate” our Islamic values. By not partaking in the educational and other opportunities afforded by the British (scarce as they were), we put ourselves at a significant disadvantage vis a vis the other communities in Malaysia that harbored no such reservations.

      Imagine had we enthusiastically utilized the British influence to enhance our literature and language, or learn trading skills from the nation of shopkeepers. Our national language would by now be fully developed and we would be accomplished entrepreneurs. Instead, we were obsessed with maintaining the “purity” of our language to the extent of avoiding obvious words like “radio” preferring instead our very own native and “pure” tetuang udara (lit. pouring out air), no matter how awkward that sounded.
Ironically, Malay language expanded exponentially only after independence when we, without reservations adopted wholesale English words even when there were perfectly adequate Malay ones!

      As for trading skills, we missed out on the Arabs and again with the English. No wonder today we have only the pseudo variety of entrepreneurs in our midst.
 
Next: Imagining Otherwise
 
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
 
 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Lessons From The Past

Lessons From The Past
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com
 
The coming of Islam, European colonization, and the pursuit of independence - these were transformational events in our culture that resulted in the toppling of the Malay collective coconut shell. In all three instances our culture had served us well in guiding us through uncharted waters.
 
     Yet, and this seems perverse, in our current tribulations we are far too inclined to blame our culture. I suggest that instead of forever berating and blaming the presumed inadequacies of our culture, it would be far more meaningful and productive if we were to analyze and learn how our culture had dealt with the major events of the past, and apply those insights to our current challenges.
 
     If I were to grade the performance of our culture to the three transformational events in our history, I would give an exemplary A-plus for the path we chose towards independence, an A-minus for our reception to the coming of Islam, and a respectable B for our performance during colonization.
 
     As for that brief period of Japanese Occupation, the fact that we survived was blessing enough. Indeed we did better; we maintained our honor and integrity. Contrary to the fears expressed by the likes of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew who wondered out loud whether during a time of famine his Malay neighbors would spare him their last grains of rice, rest assured that Malays willingly shared what little we had even with our once oppressors, as Jean Paget experienced in "A Town Like Alice."
 
     A grading exercise is only meaningful if accompanied by some useful comments. I gave a perfect score for our pursuit of independence because it was done right in every respect. We chose the right leaders and they chose the right strategy; it was also the right timing. Our approach was pragmatic, and that proved productive.
 
     The path we chose reflected the best elements of our culture. It emphasized fairness and generosity, and we put both to good use by working together with the other communities to achieve our goal. We kept our eye on the ultimate prize, and we were willing to make the necessary compromises in order to reach our final destination. We did not consider the give and take of negotiations as a sign of weakness, rather of strength. Timbang menimbang, as we say, of being fair and balanced.
 
     With such a mindset we were able to work readily with non-Malays towards independence. We did not consider the exercise of collaboration as expedience, a sign of weakness, or the price we had to pay but as a positive endeavor towards a common goal. Had we been consumed with the “purity” of our goals and had been unwilling to compromise, we would still be a British colony today and be left even further behind.
 
     That said, the path we chose towards independence was far from smooth. There were tough negotiations and last minute snags not only between Malays and non-Malays as represented within the Alliance, but also among Malays, specifically between UMNO (which at that time represented the overwhelming majority of Malays) and the sultans. Ultimately commonsense prevailed, and with a united front within Alliance and with the sultans, the negotiations with the British were successful.
 
     There were other equally passionate nationalistic leaders. With no disrespect to them, none measured up to Tunku, Tun Razak, and his team in Alliance. Had we hitched our fate on Burhanuddin Al Helmy, another giant of a leader, we would be like Indonesia today; with Malay girls desperate to find work as maids in neighboring countries. I do not question Burhanuddin’s anti-colonialist credentials but his avowed goal was union with Indonesia.
 
     Had we latched on to Ahmad Boestaman, he would have embraced Chin Peng in a grand gesture of socialistic reconciliation, a strategy so loved by those who think that problems could be solved by simply forgetting or ignoring differences. Sukarno did that with Aidit, leader of the Indonesian Communist Party, and was nearly done in, as was Indonesia.

     Chin Peng was also for independence, but his goal was to realize the aspiration of a Greater China as revealed in some ancient maps found in the musty tombs of long-gone emperors. Chin Peng and Burhanuddin were alike in their thinking and strategies; the former, communism and China; the latter, Islam and Indonesia.
 
     Tunku too tried this reconciliation route, but after meeting Chin Peng at the Baling Peace Talks in December 1955, quickly gave that idea up. Tunku remembered well the basic rule to any negotiation: stick to your principles. He intuitively recognized Chin Peng for what he was and wisely decided that it would not be prudent to share a blanket with a cobra.
 
     Our culture’s response to the coming of Islam was exemplary in many ways. We saw its innate beauty and evident verity, and embraced the faith enthusiastically. Yet in so doing we did not dismiss or abandon our then existing ways and identity. Our exuberant acceptance of this new faith did not preclude us from continuing our traditional practices and adat (customs). The genius of our ancestors was to creatively harmonize the two, not picking and choosing what we like from each and discarding what we deemed unsuitable, rather the artful fusion of both. We did not become less of a Muslim or Malay in so doing but better human beings and our society the better for it.
 
     The closest modern equivalent to our exuberant embrace of Islam would be the current Chinese accommodation to capitalism and globalization. Just as our ancestors created their own “Islam with Malay characteristics” as it were, separate from those of the Arab, Persian or Indian variety, likewise today’s China enthusiastically embraces capitalism albeit “with Chinese characteristics,” a unique brand identifiably different from the American, British or Scandinavian strain. It is capitalism nonetheless and has brought unimaginable benefits to the Chinese, just as Islam did to Malays.
 
     I did not grant top marks to our ancestors’ embracing Islam because in their eagerness they failed to grasp fully its vast universe beyond the spiritual and theological. They did not fully appreciate the tremendous non-religious contributions of the Arabs to the arts and sciences through Islam. Consequently there were no Malay translations of texts beyond the religious and hikayat (legends). Nor did our ancestors emulate the highly successful trading practices of those early Arabs.
 
     Our ancestors also failed to appreciate the full breath and diversity of Islamic theological thoughts, or of Islam’s tolerance to dissenting viewpoints, at least in its early years. Our culture’s failure in that arena would handicap us in our subsequent dealings with the inevitable differences in interpretations within our faith. We impute evil motives on those with whom we disagree; we are too eager to label as apostates those who disagree with us.

      We became so enamored with those Arab traders and so eager to emulate them that we closed ourselves to other equally valid interpretations and practices of Islam. We let ourselves be colonized mentally in that we would view any other version of Islam as being bida’a, an adulteration of the faith.
 
     Our embrace of the Arabs could not be more different than our reaction to the Europeans. Our culture was right in recognizing colonization’s inherent evil nature. No human group has a right to subjugate others under any pretext, be it noblesse oblige or the presumption of a supposed “white man’s burden.”
 
     We should fight evil (and colonization was that) but in doing so we should also recognize our own weaknesses. If we realize that our enemy is overwhelming and that there can be no meaningful or possible way for us to prevail, then we should be prepared to make the necessary accommodations to that harsh reality. There is no need to sacrifice our people needlessly. Life is precious; adapt and live for another day.
 
     The powers of the colonialists were indeed awesome, and we would be nothing but easy prey had we aggressively resisted. In such instances our first priority should be to ensure our collective survival. With time we could learn from our adversaries and only then perhaps could we build a credible force to challenge them.
 
     As per the wisdom of our Koran, when we see evil we must use our hands to combat it, meaning, do so physically. Failing that we should use our tongue, that is, voice our disapproval. When even that is not feasible, then we should disapprove of it in our hearts, though that is the path least favored by Allah. Stated differently, we should not senselessly sacrifice our precious lives to a lost cause and that there is infinite human capacity to adjust while remaining true to our faith. We saw that in Stalin’s Soviet Union and elsewhere.
 
     British colonialism was a formidable force and we could not possibly prevail. We could not challenge it with our hands; we were no match for their guns and cannons. We could voice our disapproval, but their prisons too had infinite capacity. Thus we were left to disapproving it only in our hearts, and we did.
 
     When it became clear that we were vastly outmatched by colonialism, our people responded in the only way they could. They resorted to using the “weapons of the weak,” borrowing James C. Scott’s words.
 
Next: Our Schizophrenic Response to British Colonialism
 
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
 
 

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Peaceful Path We Chose Towards Independence


The Peaceful Path We Chose Towards Independence
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com

The third defining moment in Malay culture was the peaceful path we chose towards independence. The Malay world was turned upside down with colonization; it altered the physical as well as social landscape. The latter was even more profound and threatening.
 
     Despite that, and defying the trend of the time, we opted for this peaceful path through negotiations and collaborations in pursuit of our independence.      
    
     If one were to stroll along the countryside of pre-colonial Malaysia, there would of course be no paved roads. One would have to literally cut a swath through the thick jungle. The only practical route for travel was by rivers and waterways.
 
     The British built roads and replaced the thick jungle with neat rows of identical, boring but highly productive rubber trees. As for the rivers, once teeming with fish, they were now like kopi susu (cafe au lait) from the contamination of brown sediments from the ubiquitous tin mines.
 
     Those earlier mines were of the cheap, primitive and labor-intensive hydraulic variety. Water under high pressure was blasted onto the hillside to get to the heavier tin ore underneath the surface. The thin but rich topsoil would be washed away, polluting streams and rivers.
 
     The rubber estates on the other hand presented a serene scene. However, behind that cool green scenery, the rubber industry too was (and still is) highly polluting. If you happen to be anywhere near a rubber factory where those sheets are being dried, if the offensive stench does not get you then the acrid smoke certainly will. Processing the seemingly pure white latex is also extremely toxic, requiring corrosive formic acid and vast quantities of water that then also pollute the streams and water tables.
 
     To colonial economists, that pollution is merely an externality; remediation efforts would only reduce profits. Besides, the victims were Malay villagers anyway. For them however, the streams that previously provided much-needed proteins through their fish were now barren. Worse, with the silting came frequent devastating floods.
 
     The degradations of the environment offended not just the esthetics but also physical senses. Yet what really affected Malay sensibilities were the equally dramatic, fast moving, and very unsettling changes to the social landscape. Malays felt an existential threat by the presence of the massive hordes of foreigners brought in to work the tin mines and rubber estates. 
 
     This monumental change to the social landscape would have remained hidden and subtle had it not been for the tumultous changes in the mining industry. Those primitive, labor-intensive hydraulic mines soon gave way to the efficient, mechanized, floating dredges. Suddenly thousands of coolies were no longer needed and forced to leave the mines. They settled on Malay lands.
 
     Soon hitherto Malay towns like Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur changed character in dramatic ways. Instead of Azzan you would hear gongs; instead of the fragrance of the lady-of-the-night flowers we had the eye-searing smoke from burning joss sticks.
 
     With English schools being built in towns and non-Malays eagerly enrolling their children, no doubt influenced by the successes of the Queen’s Chinese, it did not take long for non-Malays to control the modern sectors of Malaysian life, especially the economy.
 
     It was this social change that Malays found threatening and motivated our leaders to seek independence as soon as possible so our destiny would be under our control. This nationalistic zeal was further emboldened when we saw the ease with which the British were routed during World War II.
 
     Malaysia’s peak struggle for independence was fortuitously timed with the period of worldwide de-colonization. The shame of colonization finally struck the conscience of the Western world, mocking their very concept of being civilized. Colonization betrayed the hollowness of their supposedly humanitarian Christian principles.
 
     That realization alone was not enough for the British to give up their resource-rich colony. The country now was no longer exclusively Malay; it had a substantial immigrant population. The British had just gone through the harrowing experience with the Indian independence and the ensuing horrific human tragedies. The stain and stench of that epic human-made catastrophe was still heavy on British hands. They were not about to let that happen again to any of their other colonies.
 
     Fortunately Malay leaders at the time, at least the more thoughtful and enlightened ones, were aware of the British dilemma. The only way the country could achieve independence was to convince the colonials that those non-Malays would not be massacred once the civilizing presence of the British was gone, and that Malays could live side by side with non-Malays, or at least tolerate their presence. In short, our leaders assured the British that the Indian horror would not be repeated on the Malay Peninsula.
 
     Wise Malay leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Razak sought formal workable relationships with like-minded leaders from the Chinese and Indian communities. The Tunku and Tun Razak sought those leaders who were not among the recent immigrants who tended to be chauvinistic and thus unacceptable to Malays. Rather they chose those who had been in Malaysia for generations and were in tune with Malay sensitivities – the Straits Chinese and old established Indian leaders. Thus was born the Alliance Party, comprising the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), and Malayan Indian Congress (MIC).
 
     Alliance’s resounding success in the first general elections of 1955 in which its only manifesto was the country’s independence convinced the British that this group of leaders would not turn the country into a miniature Indian nightmare.
 
    To be sure, they were not the first to aspire leading Malaysia towards independence. For Malays, there were the traditional village leaders who scored high on the nationalism zeal but were pathetically inept in their strategic thinking. They were also woefully ignorant in the art of modern statecraft.
 
     If those were not already significant weaknesses, they were also ignorant of British ways. How could they when they had never left their kampong or could hardly speak English? The key to winning a war is to know your adversary, as Lao Tze put it in his The Art of War. Those village Malay leaders were severely handicapped in that regard.
 
     Their other weakness, and a very significant one, was that while they were committed to getting rid of colonial rule, their goal was not the country’s independence but its subsequent union with neighboring Indonesia in a grand Melayu Raya (Malay Union). Knowing how dysfunctional that young republic was (still is, half a century later) that strategy did not strike a chord even with Malays. Had Indonesia been successful, things would have been different.
 
     Similarly there were leaders in the Chinese community agitating for Malaysia’s independence. Like the Malay nationalists, those leaders, principally in the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), were not interested in the country’s independence but its incorporation in a Greater China, as supposedly claimed in some moldy documents of ancient Emperors. As for leaders of the Indian community, they were consumed with affairs in the subcontinent.
 
     In the end, the path chosen by Alliance leaders proved successful. Their overwhelming electoral victory was a powerful but not the only factor to their success in gaining independence. Those leaders also knew the ways of the English and exploited that insight. Instead of relying exclusively on the goodwill of colonial bureaucrats, those leaders also cultivated Members of Parliament, especially those from the Labor Party who were sympathetic to the Malaysian cause.
 
     The other Malay nationalists were kampong-bred and not savvy enough to negotiate the tricky path towards independence. As for Chin Peng, leader of the MCP, while he was familiar with the ways of the British having fought with them against the Japanese and proven himself sufficiently worthy of a British royal award, the OBE, nevertheless Britain was not about to let one of her richest colonies be turned over to a communist even if the Labor Party had been in power.
 
     The Alliance prevailed because of its leaders’ political suaveness and familiarity with the British. Those leaders’ commitment to capitalism and democracy, as well as their proven track record of working across racial lines, convinced the British that Malaysia would be in good hands. Those colonialists were right.
 
     Today with the waning popularity of Barisan Nasional, successor to the old Alliance, revisionist historians would like us to believe that it was all those leftist rabble rousers and terrorists who should get the credit for the nation’s independence.
 
     I do not intend to demean or dismiss the huge contributions of such towering nationalists on the left as Ahmad Boestaman and on the right as Dr. Burhanuddin Al Helmy by my remarks. They were among the first to dare imagine a world of freedom, to ignite the passion for merdeka. More importantly, they kept that fire burning.
 
     Consider Datuk Onn; he more than anyone else was responsible for galvanizing the Malay masses. It was he who frontally took on the British and his own sultan in aborting the Malayan Union Treaty that would have made Malaysia a permanent British dominion.
 
     In the end as with everything else, it is the result that counts. UMNO leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Razak Hussein in their wisdom sought the cooperation of the other communities, and using their political skills and personal talents captured the ultimate prize. If both were alive today, I am certain that they would generously share the credit with the other nationalists. I just wish that their successors in the current UMNO would be just a wee bit charitable and not hog all the glory.
 
Next: Lessons From The Past
 
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
 

Monday, October 05, 2015

No "Lazy Malays" During The Japanese Occupation

No "Lazy Malays" During The Japanese Occupation
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com
 
 
The Japanese Occupation briefly interrupted British colonial rule. Japanese troops landed in Kota Baru in the early morning of December 8, 1941, and surrendered some 43 months later. That was only a blink in our history but to those who suffered through that terrible period, it was eternity. As brutal as it was, Malays as a culture and community survived.
 
     There was one significant but not widely noted disruption and humiliation of Malay culture during that period. The Japanese, despite their reverence for their own Sun God Emperor, had little use or respect for Malay sultans. At least the British maintained the facade of respect even though those sultans were essentially colonial puppets.
 
     The colonials saw in the institution of Malay sultans an effective means of indirect rule. The British knew full well the reverence Malays had for our sultans. The British must have learned a thing or two from observing kampong boys herding their kerbaus (water buffaloes). Pierce a ring through the lead buffalo’s nose and then even a toddler could effectively control the herd by pulling on the rope tied to that lead beast's ring.
 
     That essentially was the British approach to controlling the Malay herd; pierce a ring through their sultan’s nose. The rope may be of silk and the ring of gold, but the underlying dynamics are the same.
 
     The Japanese on the other hand totally ignored the sultans. They did not even bother going through a formal ceremony of “de-recognizing” the sultans. The surprise was not how quickly and easily the sultans ceded their power, rather how unceremoniously those sultans lost their honor and prestige among their own subjects.
 
     I once saw a documentary shown in the village by the Information Department about the royal installation of the first Agong. He happened to be the Yang di Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan, my state. The next morning I overheard a group of Malay women chatting with my mother. They were making fun of the pompous ceremony depicted in that film.
 
     Those villagers did not see a Queen as the rest of the country did. Instead they saw their former fishing mate made pretty and regal. They remembered her only as a woman wrapped in her wet tattered sarong arguing over a fishing spot in the river during the Occupation. Neither pretty nor regal! My mother remembered her as particularly inept with her tanggok (fishing net). If not for the generosity of fellow villagers, the future queen and her husband would have starved during the Occupation.
 
     There was something else amazing about those shared fishing trips my mother and the other villagers had with the future queen, and that was the obvious absence of royal fuss or protocol. Only a few months before the Japanese invasion, those members of the royalty could with a click of their fingers command a villager to do their bidding. He would then have to stop whatever he was doing, stoop low, crawl towards the raja and express what a great honor it was to be a slave of the sultan! And if he were to inadvertently make eye contact with the sultan, may Allah have mercy on him for the sultan certainly would not.
 
     All that royal pomp and ceremony together with other elaborate palace rituals vanished overnight under the Japanese. The remarkable thing was, and the villagers did not fail to notice this, how quickly those former royals adapted to their new plebian status! They were not above bickering over a coconut or their favorite fishing hole.

      The Japanese also had a profound effect on the behavior of ordinary Malays, especially the youths. Once as a youngster a few years after the war, my father and I were strolling in the village when we encountered a bunch of unemployed Malay boys hanging around and making a nuisance of themselves. Behind them was an abandoned field covered with overgrown brush.
 
     My father commented that such a scene would have been unthinkable during the war. Those idle youths would have been conscripted and sent to work on the infamous Death Railway in Burma, never to return. So everyone, especially able-bodied young men, knew better than to loiter. Likewise the owners of idle but otherwise tillable land; they risked being punished and their land confiscated.
 
     Yes, the Japanese did all those terrible things, scaring young men to go into hiding. However, boys will be boys; they will defy authorities despite the cruelty of the punishments. Indeed if you keep the young repressed for too long, they will eventually blow up, as we saw in Egypt and Tunisia recently, and what Malaysia is now experiencing.
 
     The Japanese were smart enough to go beyond simply meting out cruel punishments. They set up many vocational training centers and those youths eagerly enrolled. Whether that was out of passion for learning and acquiring useful skills or merely fear of being caught idle, I know not. Perhaps both! Whatever it was, they became highly skilled.
 
     My cousin, an unemployed teacher during the war, took up carpentry. He became sufficiently accomplished to build for his family a fairly decent house. Another villager became a tailor, and he continued his business after the war. Yet a third became a radio repairman and later expanded into heavy equipment, a skill he learned from the Japanese. All those young men became productive, each with their own enterprises. There were no GLCs or a benevolent government ready to employ them; they started their own businesses.
 
    As revealed in a recent History Channel documentary, P. Ramlee’s talent was first discovered and honed while attending a Japanese Naval College in Penang. To “catch” these young men, the Japanese used the ruse of giving out free movie tickets. After the movie those young Malays were then led to waiting trucks to be sorted according to their abilities. Young Ramlee was fortunate not to be sent to work on the Death Railway. That was a tribute to the Japanese skill in spotting talent.
 
     During the Japanese Occupation every square inch of tillable land was cultivated. Even poor soil was tilled, to grow the hardy ubi kayu (tapioca), a cheap but not very good source of starch and calorie. Consumed too much and you would get beri-beri from Vitamin B deficiency. Similarly, every inch of the rice field was cultivated. Had the Japanese discovered short-season rice then, there would have been double and triple plantings per year.
 
     Malays worked very hard then; there were no “lazy natives” despite all the produce going to the Japanese. The consequences of being idle were too horrendous to contemplate.
 
     Even my father, who always complained of how difficult it was for him to learn English, quickly became facile with Japanese and proficient with kanji. The reason for my father and other Malays becoming fast learners was clear; the very effective Japanese teaching technique – learn, or else! That “or else” was the most powerful motivator!
 
     As for our cultural values during that terrible period, I refer readers to that wonderful movie "A Town Like Alice," based on Nevil Shute’s novel of the same title. It is the story of a group of British women who were abandoned by their husbands in the rush to escape the onslaught of the Japanese. Those women later found refuge in a Malay village and were subsequently adopted en mass by the villagers.
 
     Earlier I mentioned my Chinese-looking friend. In the villages today there are plenty of such individuals of my vintage, especially women. Their parents had given them up during those trying times. Those were the lucky ones.
 
     The Chinese were not the only ones to do that; so did some Europeans. They willingly gave up their babies and young ones to escape the Japanese unencumbered. There was the spectacular case (spectacular because she triggered a deadly riot in Singapore after the war) of Maria Hertogh or Nadra Binte Ma’arof, depending upon your biases and sympathies.
 
     Her Dutch mother gave her up for adoption to a Malay family during the war. When it was over she tried to reclaim her child who by now had become fully attached to her adopted family. The ensuing ugly court battle spilled into the community, pitting the natives against the ruling colonials. In the end the ruling colonial trial judge followed his tribal instinct instead of the evidence presented, and awarded custody to the biological mother. In so doing the judge ignored the now important sociological concept of parenthood.

     Han Suyin’s gripping novella Cast But One Shadow, though under a different setting, re-chronicles that drama.
 
     The Japanese Occupation, terrible though it was, offered many useful lessons. It also revealed many positive and resilient aspects of Malay culture. For one, as mentioned earlier, there were no lazy Malays then; we were all very productive. For another, as can be seen from the movie "A Town Like Alice," even during times of severe deprivation we maintained our values and willingly shared whatever little blessings we had with others, including those who were once our oppressors.
 
     There is one other significant aspect to the Japanese Occupation now forgotten but nonetheless bears highlighting. That is, the Japanese effortlessly destroyed a significant part of Malay culture - our institutions of royalty. The Japanese did not purposely do so; they simply found no significance to the sultans and simply ignored them. Yet our culture and society survived. That should tell us something of the value and utility of these sultans.
 
     Today when I see these sultans and other members of the royal family lording it over the rest of us, I wish someone would kindly remind them of their fathers' and grandfathers' fate during the Occupation. If that could happen then, it could happen again. Such a reminder might just curb some of their excesses.

Next: Path Towards Independence
 
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.