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.
The Rapid Rejection of Post-UMNO Datuk Onn M. Bakri Musa www.bakrimusa.com
Datuk Onn was a brilliant strategist and farsighted leader. Indeed he was so far ahead that he left his simple village followers behind.
In 1951, just five years after he established and led UMNO, he quit the presidency of his young struggling party and left in a huff. The issue was over admitting non-Malays into UMNO. On the surface this would seem to be a liberal move to engage non-Malays in the political process and to make the party race-blind. Indeed many contemporary commentators are effusive in their praise of the man for his supposed foresight in thinking beyond communal lines and racial identity.
I have a different take; I see his move as the earliest expression of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Hegemony). Onn saw his move as a means to establish Malay control on the political process by co-opting non-Malays, in particular the Chinese, into his Malay party. The reason was obvious. A year or two earlier the Chinese community under the leadership of the staunchly anti-communist Tan Cheng Lock had formed the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA). To Onn, it would be much easier to “control” the Chinese politically if they were to be co-opted within UMNO than if they were to have their own separate party. Onn feared that the newly-formed MCA would not only be a formidable power but also be on par with UMNO in the anticipated negotiations for independence.
As a preemptive political strategy, that initiative was stunningly brilliant. Obviously such a strategy could not be stated publicly lest it would lose its power. No Chinese would willingly allow themselves or their community to be trapped that way. Consequently Onn was unable to publicly enunciate his reasons to the rank and file members for this presumed “liberalization” of UMNO’s membership. The average UMNO members, being simple honest village folks, could not readily comprehend Onn’s subtle and brilliant strategy.
Of note is that all in the senior leadership of UMNO then, in particular Razak Hussein who would two decades later lead the party, were in total agreement with and supported Onn. They however, quickly capitulated when they read the mood of the membership. I do not know whether that was an expression of leadership wisdom or political expediency.
Being the aristocrat that he was, Onn felt no compulsion to explain his thinking to the membership; he felt that they should just trust him implicitly. After all, it was his brilliant idea to form UMNO in the first place, and he was the one who single-handedly led the fight against the Malayan Union. So they (UMNO members) should simply trust his judgment on the wisdom of admitting non-Malays to the party. So when the membership rejected his initiative, Onn walked out of the party in a huff.
Datuk Onn had a very high opinion of himself that went with his aloof and aristocratic bearing. His persona bordered on the arrogance. He was undoubtedly expecting in the grand old Malay tradition of merajuk (sulking) that when he walked off the stage, UMNO members and leaders would come to him begging him to stay. Unfortunately for Onn, they saw no need for that as they had another far-sighted, even more brilliant, and much younger leader to boot waiting in the wings. That person was Razak Hussein, head of the party’s Youth Wing.
As for Onn, I remember as a youngster listening to his campaign speeches in my village. What I recall most was his undisguised look of disdain as he addressed the villagers. It was as if he was wasting his time explaining sophisticated political ideas to these simpletons. The voters of course saw that; his candidacy and his new multiracial party were soundly rejected in the first general elections of 1955. It turned out that not only were Malays not buying his argument, so were non-Malays.
Datuk Onn did not win his first parliamentary seat until 1959 when he led his avowedly Malay nationalistic Party Negara. The irony was that the party explicitly restricted its membership to Malays!
Datuk Onn was right in sensing the potential strength of the newly-formed MCA, in particular its leader Tan Cheng Lock. Apart from the personal rivalry between Onn and Tan, there would now be a potentially more explosive political one. While both were committed Anglophiles, Tan would be a formidable adversary for he was staunchly anti-Communist and had proven his pro-British core during the Japanese Occupation. For another, he was also fabulously wealthy. That counted considerably in politics, then and now.
As leader, Onn showed great foresight as well as free-mindedness. Had he been the typical civil servant with the mindset of Kami menurut perentah (I follow instructions) he would have followed in his sultan’s lead by supporting the Malayan Union Treaty, and be amply rewarded in the process. Had he done that, there would be no limit to the honors heaped upon him by the sultans and the British. Instead he heeded the voices of the rakyat and paid close attention to the key phrases of the treaty. That decided for him, and he ignored his sultan. Malays owe Datuk Onn a huge debt of gratitude for without him, Malayan Union would have prevailed.
The UMNO masses in turn showed great political wisdom and maturity in not letting Onn blackmail them by joining him in abandoning the young fledgling party. Malays, specifically UMNO members, were indeed grateful to Onn for scuttling the Malayan Union, but that gratitude had its limits. When Onn breached that by quitting UMNO, the members rightly rejected him.
Today Malays, in particular UMNO members, unabashedly express their gratitude to leaders whose accomplishments pale in comparison to that of Datuk Onn’s. We continue doing so long after they have betrayed our trust in them through their repeated acts of greed, corruption and incompetence.
There is yet another point worth noting. When Onn left UMNO, its leaders beginning with Tunku Abdul Rahman (who succeeded Onn) and Datuk Razak Hussein right down to the lowly branch committee member as well as ordinary members, did not demonize Onn. They respected his decision to leave and left it at that.
The UMNO of today is a far different party. When former Prime Minister Mahathir retired after leading the party for over two decades, those small characters he left behind took every opportunity to snipe at him. Malay culture has not changed; only UMNO.
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013. Next: Tun Razak Hussein
Zaid Ibrahim’s Pristine Jihad and Purest Dakwah M. Bakri Musa www.bakrimusa.com
[Foreword to Zaid Ibrahim's latest book, Assalamualaikum. Observations on the Islamization of Malaysia, published by ZI Publications and launched on November 20, 2015 by former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir.]
Muslims believe the Koran to be a guide from God; “for all mankind, at all times, and till the end of time.” That is a matter of faith.
The essence of the Koran is Al-amr bi 'l-ma’ruf wa 'n-nahy ani 'l-munkar. That message is repeated many times in our Holy Book. The approximate translation is, “Command good and forbid evil;” or in my Malay, “Biasakan yang baik, jauhi yang jahat.” Succinct and elegant in both languages as it is in the original classical Arabic!
This central message is often missed in the thick tomes of religious scholars, erudite sermons of bedecked ulamas, and frenzied jingoisms of zealous jihadists. Meanwhile in Malaysia, Islam is reduced to a government bureaucracy manned by control-freaks intent on dictating our lives. Yes, they are all men.
Their mission has little to do with that golden rule. Theirs is an exercise of raw unbridled power, all in the name of Allah of course. Not-too-bright and self-serving politicians are only too willing to ride this Islamic tiger. Once ridden however, it is mighty difficult to dismount, as the Afghanis and Pakistanis are finding out.
Malaysia’s saving grace is its significant non-Muslim minority, an effective buffer and formidable bulwark against the intrusive reach of these political Islamists. Another is that we are blessed with our share of Hang Jebats, courageous souls committed to justice and offended by these opportunistic Hang Tuahs of Islam.
Zaid Ibrahim is one such individual. He demonstrated his Jebatism many years ago by quitting his senior cabinet position, a rare occurrence in Malaysia. His reputation soared following that.
He brings this tenacious trait to his latest book, Assalamualiakum (Peace Be Upon You) where he assails these government-issued ulamas for their zealous preoccupation with the superficialities of our faith while ignoring our blatant “un-Islamic” core, as with our corrupt leaders and the injustices they perpetrated, as well as their flagrant and frequent abuses of power.
Such perversions of the faith are now the norms in much of the Islamic world. Malaysians, especially Malays, need to be reminded of this grim and depressing reality. Zaid’s collection of essays does this; they are tough, sophisticated, and most of all brutally frank.
Many have also done this but what makes Zaid unique is that he marshals the logic, rationality and persuasiveness of an accomplished lawyer that he was in his writing. Many Malays, unsure of their grounding in Islam, obsequiously defer to these civil servant-ulamas. Not Zaid. He proves that you do not need a madrasah background, flowing robes, or exquisite tajweed to expose these pretenders in our faith.
Zaid shies away from long quotations of the Koran and hadith, de rigueur in current Islamic discourses. His only paean to Arabism is the title. As he noted in his preface, he could have substituted the warm and welcoming Malay equivalent, Salam sejahtera. Noting that sejahtera is of Sanskrit and thus Hindu origin, he demurred. The zealots might misinterpret his gesture.
To Zaid, such concepts as justice, privacy, the rule of law, and representative government, long dismissed by Islamists as Western constructs and thus ipso facto un-Islamic, have deep roots in Islamic tradition and are very much in consonant with the central message of the Koran.
I agree. Consider privacy. Legend has it that Caliph Omar once spied an unmarried couple engaged in what Malaysians call khalwat (“close proximity”). He barged in to confront the couple, threatening them with the severest penalty – stoning to death, at least for the woman. Unperturbed, the male partner instead chastised Omar, admitting that yes, he had indeed sinned against God, but Omar on the other hand had wronged him and his partner by violating their privacy. The wise Caliph relented.
Three points here. One, the primacy of personal privacy in Islam; two, citizens should not hesitate confronting even the highest authorities should they stray out of line; and three, the pivotal difference between wronging God versus wronging your fellow humans. Tell that to those voyeuristic Islamists who are wont to snoop into hotel rooms!
As for our leaders’ frequent abuse of power and disregard for the rule of law, consider 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.” Tell that to those overbearing leaders, religious as well as secular.
Islam is more than a religion; it is a complete and total way of life. As such discourses in Islam should not be the exclusive preserve of only ulamas and religious scholars. All have something, and Zaid has much, to contribute.
As a practicing lawyer Zaid was concerned with justice at the personal level. As a public figure he fights for justice at the societal level. Without justice a society cannot be Islamic regardless of its label. It is that simple.
Zaid exposes pervasive injustices in the Islamic world perpetrated by religious leaders as well as secular ones wrapped in religious garbs. Little wonder that Ayatollah Khomeini drove more out of Islam than even Stalin could! Deprived of justice, peace eludes much of the Muslim world.
Malaysia may not be led by ulamas (except for Kelantan), but as Zaid wrote, it is in “an increasingly steep descent into a more regressive form of Islamic administration . . . not by the desire to promote Islamic values . . . but to exert political control.”
As for ulamas leading the state, Zaid’s Kelantan is “Exhibit A” on why they should not. It has appalling poverty as well as the highest rates of AIDS, incest, drug abuse, and abandoned babies. It also has the highest number of surfers of pornographic sites!
Zaid renders a great service to Muslims by reminding us of the sterling essence of our great faith. For non-Muslims, Assalamualikum is a lucid exposition of the Islamic foundation of such concepts as justice, privacy, the rule of law, and other humanistic aspirations hitherto wrongly assumed to be exclusively modern and Western.
Stated in a different way, with Assalamualaikum Zaid Ibrahim performs a pristine form of jihad and the purest of dakwah.
M. Bakri Musa email@example.com www.bakrimusa.com Morgan Hill, California Syawal 1436/July 2015
The Halus (Subtle) Way Datuk Onn Aborted the Malayan Union M. Bakri Musa www.bakrimusa.com
In an earlier commentary I gave high
marks to our leaders for their enlightened ways and sophisticated
strategies in the pursuit of our independence. Malaysia could have
easily gone in a very different direction following the Japanese defeat.
It could have just as quickly been turned into a permanent British
The man responsible for sparing the
country that terrible fate was Datuk Onn Jaafar. He was a former senior
civil servant, a significant and rare achievement for a native. Had he
been a Hang Tuah, ever loyal to his sultan and the British, there would
be no limit to the height of his personal achievement within the
colonial civil service. He could have been the first native
Governor-General of the Dominion of Malaya.
Instead, in the tradition of
Jebat, Onn saw the grave injustice perpetrated upon Malays by the
colonialists in cahoots with our sultans. They had sold out our country,
repeating what their brother Sultan of Johor did with Singapore 127
The pathetic aspect to the
Malayan Union Treaty, like the earlier ceding of Singapore to the
British, was how easy it was to make those Malay sultans capitulate. Sir
Harold MacMichael, the British point man, needed only a few months to
secure the agreement. There was not even a whimper of protest from the
Some, like the Johor Sultan,
enthusiastically signed the treaty within a day or two, and were proud
of that fact! The few who had flashes of courage quickly backed down
under threat of being replaced or prosecuted for presumed collaboration
with the Japanese during the war.
It turned out that those Malay sultans – Allah’s representatives on earth – also menurut arahan (follow direction), as per the mantra of the civil service, not from Allah but from Sir Harold.
Thanks to Datuk Onn, the Union
treaty was rescinded. He took on the mighty British and prevailed, with
no help from his sultans. Onn did it without being biadap (treasonous) to the sultans or resorting to armed insurrections.
It is ironic that Onn would be
instrumental in this endeavor. Earlier the Sultan of Johor had banished
Onn for daring to criticize him. If Onn had been consumed with settling
old scores and at the same time endear himself to the British, he would
have let the treaty be, and those Malay sultans would today be reduced
to the status of the Sultan of Sulu.
Onn’s accomplishment was even more
remarkable considering that by the time he mounted the challenge,
Malayan Union was already a fait accompli. The sultans had
already signed the treaty, ceding all their authorities to the British.
Essentially Malayan Union made what was hitherto “indirect” British rule
into a direct one, with no pretense to the contrary.
The open but peaceful opposition to
the Malayan Union (and also indirectly, the Malay sultans) was truly a
transformational cultural phenomenon. It was a genuine mass movement
made even more remarkable considering the speed with which it was
planned, organized and executed. Consider that up until a few months
before the event there was not a single national Malay organization;
there were plenty of little ones each with its own parochial agenda. Onn
changed all that with UMNO.
The other remarkable aspect was that
up until that time it was the accepted wisdom that Malays were an
apathetic lot, not in the least interested in politics; hence the
British overreaching attempt at railroading the treaty. Onn changed that
too. Today, Malays are obsessed with politics to the detriment of
everything else. Who says we cannot change Malays? Onn did it
successfully, and in a matter of years, not decades or generations.
Before Datuk Onn, the Malay
nationalist movement was slow to develop because of our separate
political identities in the various states. Some of the “Federated”
states felt that they were better off with British “protection.” The
“un-Federated” states meanwhile felt very proud of their “independence,”
even though that was more illusory than real.
Even among the “un-Federated” states
there were significant variations. Johor’s sultan was an unabashed
Anglophile; his Kelantan counterpart was notorious for his insularity.
Their subjects in turn followed the patterns set by their sultans.
Even as late as the 1950s and 60s
Malays still lacked a sense of common national identity, with Kelantan
Malays considering themselves separate from those in Johore. Even
government jobs and quarters were restricted to “anak Johore” (the
children of Johore) or “anak Selangor.”
Thanks to Onn, the formation of UMNO
was the first time Malays began to have a sense of national
consciousness, at least politically. It would be a few more decades
before that sentiment would truly be felt by the masses, and then spread
One undisputed but not widely
acknowledged fact to the successful opposition against the Malayan Union
was that Malay sultans were of no help. They were in fact very much
part of the problem with their earlier capitulation through British
flattery. The pathetic part was that the sultans’ price for their
agreement was so ridiculously cheap: a modest stipend and the knightship
of some ancient English order. Regardless whether it was the sultans’
collective stupidity or British perfidy, the result was the same.
The surprise was that there was
minimal republican or anti-sultan sentiment expressed during all those
mass protests against the Malayan Union despite the obvious sellouts by
the rulers. On the contrary, the Malay masses reacted in exactly the
reverse and counter-intuitive fashion; they expressed their unreserved
affection and loyalty to their sultans.
This display was no more
dramatically demonstrated than on that one day in Kota Baru, Kelantan,
where all the sultans were gathered for the formal installation of the
first British Governor-General. The rakyats packed the palace grounds such that the sultans could not leave to attend the ceremony.
On the surface it was a show of
massive public loyalty; on the subtle side, it was nothing more than the
mass kidnapping of the sultans by their subjects. The Malay masses had
in effect “CB'ed" (confined to barracks) their sultans.
I doubt whether those sultans
received the subtle message that day. That would require some degree of
subtlety, intelligence and sophistication for which they had not
demonstrated thus far. The British on the other hand heard the message
loud and clear, and the Malayan Union treaty was rescinded.
Had it not been for the rakyats intervening, Malay sultans today would have been all titles and tanjak (ceremonial headgear symbolizing the sultan’s power) but little else.
So when former Prime Minister
Mahathir lamented that he could not change Malays, and by implication we
cannot be changed, I bring forth this dramatic example of our
remarkable transformation in response to the Malayan Union threat.
An enterprising soul, Fahmi Reza,
has collected all the file pictures and cartoons of the anti-Malayan
Union protests into his award-winning documentary, “Sepuloh Tahum
Sebulum Merdeka” ("Ten Years Before Merdeka"). It is truly inspiring to
see those Malays, young and old, male and female, in sarongs and in
suits marching calmly and peacefully in the streets. Their only uniting
feature was the defiance and resolve that shone bright on their faces.
Fahmi Reza has done a remarkable
public service in producing this documentary. To his credit, he has also
made it freely available on the ‘Net.
Much has been written about the
aborted Malayan Union, both from the perspective of the natives as well
as the colonials. I have yet however, to see anyone portray those mass
rallies against the treaty as expressions of our rebellion against the
sultans. That was a measure of Onn's subtlety and sophistication.
Onn was attuned to the halus ways
of our culture and used that to bring out the best in us. He united us
towards a shared and noble objective - to kill off the existential
threat posed by the Malayan Union Treaty.
In contrast, today Malaysia is
cursed with a leader who revels in the crass aspects of Malay culture,
in particular our propensity to berlagak (conspicuous
consumption). Najib's jetting around in his luxurious jets and his
wife's Bollywood gaudy tastes are expressions of this ugly and
destructive trait. His underlings only too willingly ape him with gusto;
monkey see,monkey do. Onn united the rakyats; Najib polarizes Malays, as well as Malaysians.
Onn's legacy is a free Malaysia; Najib's will be a Malaysia that is corrupt, divided, and mired in debt.
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
Why do you stay in prison when the door is wide open? Jalal ad Din Rumi (1207-73)
path we chose in pursuing independence represented the best elements of
our culture. We followed the right leaders and they in turn adopted the
right strategy, one of co-operation and negotiation. That was our
nature, to be bertolak ansur (give and take); posturing and confrontation were just not our style.
Our leaders’ timing too was perfect as Britain had grown weary of
her colonies. We were also lucky in that we were dealing with the
British. Had it been the Chinese, well, consider the fate of the
Tibetans and Uighurs. Had it been the Russians, look at Ukraine and
Today revisionist historians belittle the
valiant efforts of our fathers of independence. Let me set these
latter-day interpreters of events straight. Had we opted for Burhanuddin
Al Helmy or Chin Peng, the nation’s history and the fate of our people
would be far different today.
In times of crises or
profound changes, we have to be extra cautious in whom we choose to lead
us, or stated differently, in whom we should follow. It is during such
times that we have to exercise our critical faculties and be extra
vigilant in choosing our leaders. Malaysia is in such a state today. We
have a leader in Najib Razak who is severely-challenged with respect to
honesty, integrity, and competency. Profligacy he has in abundance.
Those enlightened leaders who guided us peacefully to independence
should inspire us. As for our earlier heroes who shepherded us to Islam,
there is little written about them as our culture had just transited
into the written word. In lieu of that I have highlighted the heroes
from our legends. One is Hang Tuah, a figure high in the palace
hierarchy; the other, an ordinary citizen, Hang Nadim. They may or may
not be based on historical characters but they nonetheless serve a
useful purpose to remind us of the power of a free mind.
In Sulalatus Salatin
(Malay Annals) there is the story of Temasek (old Singapore) being
regularly plagued by schools of flying fish. Hundreds fell victim to
this scourge, impaled by the fish’s sharp snouts. All efforts at
combating this piscine intrusion proved unsuccessful. Then a young boy
suggested to the sultan to plant a row of bananas along the shoreline.
That way, Hang Nadim told the sultan, when the flying fish darted
onshore, their snouts would be impaled on the plants’ soft stems.
The scheme worked wonderfully well, and the pleased sultan decided
to honor the clever young man. The sultan’s advisors however, had second
thoughts. If that youth could dream up such a brilliant scheme at a
very young age, they convinced the sultan, what else would he think of
later as an adult? Sensing a future threat, the sultan had Hang Nadim
That young man certainly had a free
mind. He could, to borrow a cliché, think outside the box. He was also
not at all shy in telling his sultan on what to do. In a deeply feudal
society as Malay society was then (still is), that took great courage.
That boy however, paid dearly for his courage and free-mindedness.
Tragic as that was for him and his family, the far greater tragedy was
borne by society. Executing the young man not only deprived that society
of its bright star but also sent a clear message that it did not pay–in
fact downright dangerous–to be innovative and original. Such a society
could never aspire to greatness. That was a steep price to pay, just to
protect the exalted positions of the sultan’s selfish and shortsighted
If you kill off your bright talents, a
generation or two later you will have a society of dumbbells. When the
Mongols invaded the Muslim heartland, the first thing they did was to
kill off the intellectuals and luminaries. That was the most effective
and efficacious way to decapitate that society and culture.
Hang Nadim’s treatment reminded me of the ancient Mayan practice of
sacrificing their beautiful virgins to their Gods. A few generations
later, all the newborns in that society were ugly, as the beautiful
potential mothers had been killed.
The legend of Hang
Nadim reflects more on society than on him. Every society is blessed
with its share of Hang Nadims. What it does with the blessings would in
large measure determine its fate.
Consider the European
aristocracies’ practice of taking in gifted citizens under its
patronage. The Romanov Dynasty nurtured the best Russian artists,
composers and writers. Granted, the arts were often used as political
instruments and artists were continually divided between devotion to
their craft and to their royal patrons, but at least those creative
citizens received royal support and recognition.
if the sultan had taken Hang Nadim under his patronage. He would
blossom, exploring other bright ideas and expanding on his banana
plantation scheme. There could be a flourishing fresh-fruit industry as
well as a fish-processing plant. The fish waste would be excellent
fertilizer for the rice fields. Imagine, three industries spawned and
the attendant jobs for the sultan’s subjects, quite apart from ensuring
their safety, just from one bright idea!
If the sultan
had gone beyond and married the young man to one of the princesses, that
would ensure future members of the royal family would have something
between their ears, We would then be more likely to get sultans who
could choose smarter advisers and make wiser decisions.
The far greater reward would not be on the young man or the future
average intelligence of the royal family but on society. Other bright
young men and women would now be inspired to pursue their own creative
and innovative ideas in the hope of getting similar royal recognition.
Pretty soon the royal court would be full of these bright kids and the
sultan would have the best advice. Both he and his kingdom would
Today many lament Najib's dysfunctional
leadership. Conveniently forgotten is that the mistake on Najib was made
a generation earlier. Who was responsible in UMNO and in the country to
have let this flawed character rise up so high?
Bukhari al-Jauhari’s seminal Taj-us Salatin
(Crown Jewel of Sultans) outlined the rules governing the relationship
between the ruled and their rulers. Both are answerable to a higher
authority. Consequently the ruler is to govern in a just manner in
accordance to divine dictates. Bukhari went beyond; it is the duty of
rulers to have just, pious, honest, and knowledgeable advisors in
carrying out the functions of governance.
The king must “selalu rindukan sahabat akan orang yang bererpengetahuan ... ” (constantly yearn for the friendship of those most knowledgeable).
Rulers cannot simply lament the poor advice they get or the
inadequacies of their advisors, as Raja Nazrin of Perak tried recently
in an address to a university community. Rulers must take
responsibility; they cannot simply blame their advisors. They must go
beyond and diligently seek counsel from those who are competent and
honest. Failure to do so would be a dereliction of royal duties, at
which point citizens would no longer owe any loyalty to the ruler.
Two points about Taj-us Salatin;
first, it was written in early 17th Century when Malay society was
steeped in its feudal ways. It took great courage and a free mind to
write such a treatise. Unfortunately we do not know much about this
heroic writer, except through his works.
The second is that the volume predated Hobbes’ Leviathan,
another opus on the same subject, by over half a century. So far
reaching were Bukhari’s ideas that earlier colonials concluded that Taj-us Salatin
could not possibly be an original but mere translation, possibly from
some Middle Eastern sources, as no native could possibly possess the
intellectual wherewithal to undertake such serious philosophical work.
To claim it as otherwise would defy the colonials’ narrative of the
“dumb lazy” natives. The colonials scoured the Middle East looking for
the original. They are still looking. Those colonial minds had been
closed long before they landed on Malay soil.
Shifting from political philosophy to classical literature, in Hikayat Hang Tuah
we have the two protagonists. One, Hang Tuah, is the hero and eponymous
legend. Even the name is auspicious–Tuah, the blessed one. In contrast,
his nemesis Hang Jebat rhymes with yang jahat, the sinister one.
The legend begins with the pair in childhood, together with another three, bonding as brothers. Later they became hulubalangs
(knights) for the sultan, in the manner of King Arthur’s Knights of the
Round Table, minus the equality implied by the round table. Hang Tuah,
being numero uno, took his loyalty to the sultan to extremes, even lying
on his behalf to deceive a young princess. Soon however, palace
intrigue took over and Tuah was charged with treason and sentenced to
The sultan replaced Tuah with Jebat. On
discovering the grave injustice perpetrated on his dear friend, Jebat
relentlessly pursued the guilty parties. Threatened by Jebat’s
aggressive crusade, the sultan summoned his chief minister for help. He
suggested the sultan recall Hang Tuah whom the minister had secretly
protected. Tuah, ever loyal to his sultan despite the earlier death
The climax had the two childhood buddies battling it out in a duel, with Tuah killing Jebat.
The conventional wisdom has Tuah the hero (as suggested by the
title), ready to defend the sultan, right or wrong. The free-minded
contemporary thinker Kassim Ahmad, partial to the antihero sentiments of
his youth, concluded otherwise. Far from being the hero, Tuah is the
archetypical palace sycophant willing to kill his dear friend in order
to regain the sultan’s favor, even that of an unjust sultan. Jebat is
the genuine hero who sacrificed his life to right a gross injustice.
Tuah is loyal to the person of the sultan, Jebat to the principle of
Today Malaysia is again blighted with a leader
who exceeds the Melaka sultan of yore in his many deficiencies. Like
that sultan, Najib extols sycophancy over competency among his
ministers. And again like Melaka of yore, we are cursed with a glut of
Hang Tuahs ever willing to humor Najib. What we desperately need are our
Hang Jebats and Hang Nadims.
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
It is human nature that when things go well we pay little
attention to them; we take them in stride as if they are meant to be, the
natural consequence. When we assume such an attitude, we miss some significant
learning opportunities. We can learn so much more from our success than we
could ever from our failures. For that to happen however, we first have to
recognize our successes. This can sometimes be no easy task.
would be to undertake a mental exercise, to imagine if things had taken a
different path. What if Malays had not embraced Islam but fought and rejected
it? Likewise, what would be our fate had we enthusiastically embraced the
Europeans and adopted their ways? As for our pursuit of independence, imagine
had we bowed to the wishes our sultans and their British “advisers” and
accepted our fate to be under permanent British domination, as the Malayan
Union Treaty would have it? Lastly, assume we had let those rabble rousers be
our leaders fighting for our independence, and they took to fighting the
British literally and seriously.
of these instances there are ready examples of societies and cultures that had
indeed chosen precisely those paths that I just outlined, and we can readily
see the consequences today of their collective decisions then.
brethren on the island
of Bali were not
enthusiastic about Islam; they decided to stick to their ancient animist and
Hindu beliefs. That would be the fate of the greater Malay society had we not
embraced Islam. I have tremendous respect for the Balinese; their pacifist ways
appeal to me. However, I would not have the same qualms about my lovely island
with its pristine beaches turned into a cheap replica of Waikiki or Australia’s
Gold Coast, and my people reduced to performing exotic dances for tourists.
more practical level, had we not embraced Islam our culture would still be
trapped in the oral tradition and we would not have any written literature. We
would definitely be the poorer for that.
next juncture, imagine had we fully embraced the colonials. Again, there are
ready examples; the Filipinos embraced the Spaniards, becoming devout Catholics
in the process. Malays today would never wish to trade places with our Filipino
brothers. That is not to say there is anything wrong with them, just that we do
not wish to be like them. The Filipinos may have embraced the Spanish ways but
the Spaniards have not reciprocated. I doubt whether Filipinos get preferential
treatment to work in Spain or in any of the former Spanish colonies. Indeed
except for their shared faith, there is little else that the Filipinos have in
common with the Spaniards.
least the Filipinos were lucky; they could have easily suffered the fate of the
Mayans; their civilization was completely destroyed with the arrival of the
recently, imagine if Datuk Onn had not galvanized us to oppose the Malayan
Union. We have ready examples of that too. Australia and New Zealand are both
British dominions; look at their native populations, the Aborigines and Maoris
to home are Christmas and Keeling Islands. Both are only a few hundred miles
south of Sumatra but through the quirks of colonial history, they belong to
Australia, many thousand miles away to the south. Both islands have substantial
Malay populations, including a few former sultans and their families. See how
well the Australians treat them and how those Malays fare.
resistance against the Malayan Union Treaty we held fast to our values. We did
not derhaka (rebel) against our
sultans although we had plenty of reasons for doing so as they had literally
sold our country to the British. Instead we co-opted the finest values of our
culture – our loyalty to our sultans – to rescind that treaty.
the path towards independence, imagine had we thrown our lot with Chin Peng and
followed the violent path he pursued. We would still today be mourning fresh
victims of our “war of independence” and freedom would still elude us.
arrival of Islam and European intrusions were both external events imposed upon
us. We did not initiate them; we merely responded. Yet our culture had equipped
us well in both circumstances. The path we chose for independence was of our
own making; we acquitted ourselves exceptionally well there.
change especially when initiated by events beyond our control can potentially
be threatening to the existing order. With Islam, our leaders and rakyats as
well as our culture reacted positively and creatively, and we were the better
for it. With colonization, we reacted negatively as rightly we should to any
evil. However, having recognized its vastly superior power we were divided in
our subsequent responses.
While our leaders made the necessary accommodations
and in the end fully absorbed the values of the colonials, they impressed upon
their followers to resist or at the very least not participate. It is this
hypocrisy on the part of our leaders and the divergence in their responses as
compared to the rakyats that made our collective experience with colonialism so
much more negative than it ought to have been. As a result our society
unnecessarily suffered the ugly consequences.
the pursuit of independence, we relied on our traditional cultural values to
guide us and in so doing we acquitted ourselves very well.
central lesson, as demonstrated by our response to Islam and in the pursuit of
independence, is that there must be commonality of goals and aspirations
between leaders and followers. This commonality can only be achieved through
genuine two-way communications, from up to down and down towards up. That is
the key strategy we should adopt as we go forward in dealing with today’s
key element, again demonstrated in our own approach towards independence, is
that we must choose our leaders wisely with the hope that they in turn would
choose the right strategy and pick the right team as well as the right timing.
reactions to those events of the past did not occur by themselves; there were
equally pivotal personalities that guided us. They were remarkably free-minded,
ready to accept the challenges facing them and lead the rest of the community.
Their examples should inspire us.
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating
The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.