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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, June 28, 2015

My Ramadan Prayer for Malay Salvation - Get Rid of JAWI & JAKIM



My Ramadan Prayer For Malay Salvation – Get Rid of JAWI and JAKIM
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com

Ramadan brings exuberant displays of piety among Malays, consumed as we are with personal salvation. There is however, little reflection on our salvation as a society.

     Hellfire or the ultimate punishment for us as a society would be to be dumped into the rubbish bin of mankind, dependent on the charity of others while living in a land so blessed by Almighty. The irony, as well as the fact that others thrive in Tanah Melayu, would make the punishment that much more unbearable.

     We have ruled this country for over half a century; all instruments of government are in our hands, the sultans as well as prime ministers are Malays, and the constitution is generous to us. Yet we remain in a sorry state, reduced to lamenting our fate and blaming the pendatangs.

     This lamentation is heard with nauseating frequency, coming from sultans and prime ministers to pundits and kedai kopi commentators. Seizing on that, some (and not just non-Malays) gleefully trumpet their own sense of superiority or denigrate the Malay culture and character.

     A former chief minister of Trengganu, a predominantly-Malay and oil-rich state, asked how could we who have lived here for centuries, control the government, and are in the majority feel threatened by the immigrants. The fact that he posed the question reveals how clueless he was in addressing it. Alas his is the caliber of leadership we have been cursed with.

     The issue is not who is in charge rather what those charged with leading us are doing. The Pakistanis and Zimbabweans are in charge 100 percent and have no immigrants to contend with, yet their people suffer.       The Chinese in Hong Kong thrived under British rule while their brethren on the mainland starved and perished under Mao’s Cultural Revolution and other “Great Leap Forward” follies. Being led by your own kind is not always a blessing.

    As for immigrants, the French, Germans and Americans are much richer and in full control of their nations yet they feel imperiled by poor and unarmed Africans, Turks and Mexicans respectively.

     Leaders betraying their followers’ trust or natives feeling threatened by immigrants is not unique to Malays.

     In an earlier book, Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, I likened the dilemma we face today to that of the Irish of yore. The Irish then felt overwhelmed by the minority English who dominated just about every aspect of life in Ireland except of course the Catholic Church. The Church meanwhile held a tight grip on the Irish, dictating everything from what they could do in their bedrooms to the schools their children should attend.

     As the church banned contraception, they had huge unruly broods, with the fathers busy rebelling or drinking. If there were ambitious Irish parents who dared send their children to the much superior English schools instead of the lousy church-run ones, they risked being excommunicated. More Irish left Ireland than stayed.

     Substitute Islam for Catholicism and non-Malays for the English, and we have our current mess, except that we are not emigrating en mass. As for the Irish blight of alcohol and fecundity, we have drugs and HIV infections.

     Ireland today is very different nation. The Irish are no longer emigrating and the country hosts many IT giants. Ryan Air, the Dublin-based discount airline, once attempted a takeover of venerable British Airways.

     We can learn much from the Irish, their recent economic setbacks notwithstanding. We can begin by choosing enlightened leaders, meaning, those who can crystallize the problems and then craft sensible solutions instead of endlessly extolling the mythical values of Ketuanan Melayu or mindlessly quoting the Holy Book.

     Ireland’s transformational leader Sean Lemass began by clipping the powers of the Church. He removed schools from its control and allowed contraceptives. He lifted censorship so the Irish could read dissenting opinions and view on their television sets the world beyond their government’s propaganda.

     Irish kids studied science and mathematics instead of reciting catechism. With family planning the unruly messy Irish brood was replaced by a more wholesome and manageable one.

     We have our share of potential Lemasses but we do not nurture or elect them. Our leaders instead are consumed in a destructive and dysfunctional dynamics of triangulation, with one element attempting alliance with the second to neutralize the third. Earlier, Mahathir co-opted the religious to take on the third – the sultans. Today’s weakened political leadership emboldens the sultans to re-exert themselves by aligning with the ulamas. Seemingly progressive Perak’s sultan gives free rein to his Taliban-like mufti while Kelantan’s is more imam than sultan, enrapturing Malay hearts. Elsewhere sultans could not find enough ulamas to heap royal honors.

     These sultans and politicians have yet to learn a crucial lesson. The Islamic tiger, once ridden, is impossible to dismount. You would be lucky if it would not take you back to its den. Meanwhile you have to endure where it wants to go, and right now it is headed for ISIS.

     Only the emergence of other pillars of leadership could break this dysfunctional triangulation. A potential source would be NGOs; BERSIH’s considerable impact attests to this. Another would be for “towering” Malays to be assertive, especially those not tainted by politics, religion, or royalty. Consider that cartoonist Zunar and Laureate Samad Said have more impact than the much-touted Group of 25 “eminent” Malays comprising retired senior civil servants. For a Malay to reach the top in the civil service is no achievement; it would be for a non-Malay. Thus those 25 “eminent” Malays, despite or perhaps because of their fancy royal titles, are not effective role models or catalysts for change.

     Barring disruption of this destructive triangulation or the emergence of a local Lemass, there is not much hope except to pray. However, as per the oft-quoted Koranic verse, Allah will not change the condition of a people unless they themselves do it (approximate translation). Our Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., advised us that we must first tie our camel securely and only then pray it does not escape.

     Pray we must, but first we have to get rid of JAWI, JAKIM and hordes of similar expensive agencies. I could tolerate them as public works programs for otherwise unemployable Malays but those authoritarian and far-from-authoritative government-issued ulamas are intent on controlling our lives a la the Irish prisests of yore.

     I would then divert those funds, as well as the billions in zakat so generously donated by our people, to improve our schools and universities. Make our religious schools and colleges more like those in America. Catholic schools like California’s Bellarmine, and universities like Indiana’s Notre Dame produce their share of America’ scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs. They attract outstanding students and faculty from other faiths.

     Had that former chief minister dispensed with his Monsoon Cup and ostentatious crystal mosque and instead used the funds to improve his schools, he would have found the answer to his question.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Incentives and Zero-Sum Mentality


 Incentives And Zero-Sum Mentality
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

Unlike my earlier books, in Liberating the Malay Mind I adopt a narrow approach, focusing only on Malays. Some would counter that Malaysians are now at a stage when we should consider ourselves Malaysians rather than Malays, Chinese or Ibans. Thus we should seek an approach applicable to and suitable for all Malaysians. I agree, up to a point.

            One does not have to be particularly perceptive to note the obvious and significant differences between the races beyond how we look, dress and what we eat. If there are those obvious differences in such simple things, imagine our differences on more substantive matters, like what we value and aspire to.

            Being mindful of our differences does not mean ignoring our commonalities rather that we should be cautious as to the possible variations in how we react to policies and initiatives. We may all aspire to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but those concepts mean a whole lot of different things to different people.

            Consider economics. Most of it, as Steven Landsburg observed in his The Armchair Economist, can be summarized in four words:  Humans response to incentives. The rest is commentary. Incentives matter, but what constitute incentives vary considerably with culture.

            The example I used in an earlier book to illustrate this central point was of the novice priest sent to preach among the Eskimos. Arriving in the depth of winter, his first sermon was all fire and brimstone to impress his flock. He warned them of the huge perpetual ball of fire in Hell that awaited those who would transgress God’s command. Imagine his anger and astonishment when the very next day his parishioners were exuberantly engaged in those sinful deeds. Responding to his admonishment they replied, “But Father, we want to go to that place where the big fire burns all the time!”

            To those in the desert and the tropics, a huge ball of fire is indeed hellish, but in the frigid tundra, that is heaven!

            Those who would argue against my focusing only on Malays are revealing their own entrapped minds. There is this mindset, widespread in Malaysia and elsewhere, that when you help or favor one community you are ipso facto against or punishing another. This “zero-sum mentality” is especially ingrained among Malaysians, and is getting worse. It is not productive, in fact destructive.

            At the negotiations for merdeka, the participants from the various communities were fully aware that Malays were far behind in just about every aspect. The reasons were many, but simply knowing them did not necessarily lead to solutions. As part of the grand bargain, the participants agreed to a set of special privileges for Malays. That was part political pragmatism (no agreement, no merdeka), and part collective wisdom. Our forefathers and the British recognized that the new nation could not possibly survive if a significant and visibly identifiable segment of the population were to remain marginalized. Their insights were particularly prescient, as demonstrated by the 1969 deadly race riot triggered by the obscene inter-communal inequities of the time.

            My thesis is that helping Malays or any underdeveloped segment of the community, especially one so highly visible because of color, culture or demography, is also helping the larger community. If the socioeconomic standing of Malays was lifted, the whole nation would benefit. We would have essentially uplifted nearly two-thirds of the population. That would mean more customers, more economic activity, and consequently more revenue for the country. It is far from being a zero-sum exercise. Increasing the portion size of the pie for one community need not be through making the shares of the others smaller, but by making a bigger pie.

            This win/lose mentality can quickly degenerate into an even more destructive dog-in-the-manger mindset, where purely out of spite one prevents another from getting something they would otherwise have no use for anyway. Worse, you would then be actively engaging in activities deliberately detrimental to the other groups without benefiting your own. Sabotage is the proper word.

            I will illustrate this point with a personal anecdote. Years back I had a vigorous discussion with my parents on a highly divisive issue in Malaysia at the time. The Chinese community wanted to have a private university and had cleverly chosen the name Merdeka University in the hope of getting Malay (in particular UMNO) support. As that proposal would further advance the Chinese community, and thus put the Malays further behind vis a vis the Chinese, it was vehemently opposed by Malays right across the political spectrum. It was one of the few issues that actually united Malays. My parents were no exception.

            When I suggested to them that Merdeka University would indeed be a great idea, worthy of support of all Malaysians, my parents were taken aback and wondered whether I was saying that purely to be argumentative. I assured them that I was not. After all, that university would not cost the government a penny, and if through that campus there were to be many more successful Chinese, Malays too would benefit. For one, those successful Chinese would pay more taxes to what was (still is) essentially a Malay-dominated government. Imagine what it could do with all that extra revenue. For another, some of their graduates or the enterprises they created would meet the needs of Malays, like becoming English teachers in rural schools or employing Malays to attract Malay customers.

            Considering the benefits that could potentially accrue upon Malays for which we contributed nothing, the Merdeka University would be a good idea and thus worthy of our support. At the very least we should not oppose it. My parents however were not persuaded, demonstrating a variant of the dog-in-the-manger attitude, except that here while Malays would also benefit, the Chinese would obviously gain more.

            So I framed the issue differently. Instead of opposing and being unduly negative about the university, why not explore the concept together with the Chinese community and see how we could make the project beneficial not just for them but also us? Be proactive instead of automatically opposing what the Chinese had suggested. For example, the government could consider supporting through monetary and other grants (like state land). After all, the government had given generous donations to foreign universities in return for agreeing to admit our students.

            Likewise Merdeka University could agree to certain mutually beneficial conditions, like attracting students from all communities, especially Malays, and be “Malay friendly” such as serving halal food. Then we could have a truly “win-win” situation, as the cliché would have it. The proponents of the university would benefit as with the extra help they could build a far superior facility than they could otherwise. The students too would benefit, as they would have plenty of opportunities to escape their clannishness with the presence of many non-Chinese classmates. Malays and Malaysia would also benefit from the additional opportunity for tertiary education.

            I won my parents over with that argument. I hope to win my readers by pursuing a similar line in this book.

This essay is excerpted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

Next Excerpt #7:  The Internal Consistency of a Culture

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Re-Examining Three Defining Moments in Malay Culture

Re-Examining Three Defining Moments in Malay Culture
Three defining moments in Malay culture are worth recounting. First, the arrival of Islam; second, onset of European colonization; and third, the path we chose towards independence. I will examine how our culture had served us in those three instances; exemplary in the first and third, less so with the second.

It is fashionable these days to blame our culture for what ails our community. Our leaders would let us believe that our culture is our oppressor. When former Prime Minister Mahathir was asked what his greatest failure was, he unhesitatingly asserted his inability to change Malay culture. It reflected the height of arrogance on his part to even consider that he could do so.

Mahathir was neither the first nor the last to blame our culture; he however, went further to fault our very nature – our genes – as he asserted in his book The Malay Dilemma. Early in the 19th Century Munshi Abdullah also railed against our outdated ways while Pendita Za’aba, a century later, echoed similar sentiments. More recently there was Datuk Onn with his presumptuous membetulkan Melayu (correcting Malays). As is apparent, Mahathir has plenty of company.

These individuals are giants in our history. At the risk of appearing self-important or worse, stupid, I will nonetheless take them on, albeit with great trepidation. What those luminaries presumed to be the flaws of Malay culture, as with our fondness for immediate gratification, lack of savings, and apparent disinterest in education, are in fact universal weaknesses of the poor, marginalized, and/ or oppressed. We saw that with Irish-Americans in the early part of the last century, the Irish under the English, and Hispanics and Blacks in America today. Those are also features of a feudal agrarian society, or those just emerging from it. About the only features unique to our Malay culture are our fondness for sambal belacan (chilli shrimp paste) and our passion for our folk melody dondang sayang. Nothing wrong with that!

Culture is essentially conservative; any change would be slow and have to work from bottom up and not the other way around. Those wannabe revolutionaries ensconced in their air-conditioned offices calling for revolusi mental (mental revolution) and who are presumptuous to believe that they have the talent to change our culture are woefully misguided. They are high on their own rhetoric.

A culture is best judged on how its members manage sudden changes, not by observing it through a snapshot in time. Thus it would be fruitful to review the three transformational events in our history referenced earlier. As can be seen, we are still here and intact, which says something of the endurance if not greatness of our culture. Not all cultures are that lucky, and this should give us confidence if not inspire us in facing our current challenges. It also demolishes the arguments of those whose first and natural inclination would be to blame our culture in discussing the “Malay issue.”

Those changes did not just happen; there were individuals and leaders involved. I will recall some of those great open-minded individuals in our history, as well as a few contemporary figures. I will not do justice to their interesting biographical details not out of lessened respect but because my focus here is on their free minds, and the impact they had (and some are still having) on our society. To emphasize the point that they are not anomalies or outliers in our culture, I will recall some seemingly ordinary individuals whose personal achievements reflect their free-mindedness. Their commonplace lives should inspire us all the more.
Again to show that free-mindedness is not alien to but very much part of our culture, I will recall a few such inspiring heroes in Malay literature.

I next detour into neuroscience to explore the concept of a free mind, what it means to have one, and the relationship of the mind to the brain as well as the related notion of mindset. I rely less on religious rationalization or philosophical pondering, more on the insights gleaned from modern neuroscience and human psychology.

Sometimes the best way to understand a word or concept is to examine its antonyms, what it is not. We have an apt expression, katak di bawah tempurung (frog underneath a coconut shell). That is an excellent metaphor for a closed mind, the very opposite of a free one.

In the next section, “Comfort Underneath the Coconut Shell,” I shine the light from a different angle, making the familiar seems less so or even contrary to prevailing perceptions.

Lastly, I distinguish between the “Malay problem” and the “Malay myth.” With the former we could deliberate, study the issues, and then craft workable solutions; with the latter, we are reduced to accepting our fate.

Today there is near universal agreement among Malays that our domination of politics and public administration is our savior. If not for that, so the argument goes, we would have long been reduced to the fringes of Malaysian society. Shining the light from a different angle will illuminate this as nothing more than a delusion. Malays may control politics and other apparatus of the state but we are far from being sophisticated players; we do not wield this considerable power effectively or with any finesse. Thus our dominance in politics and public administration has degenerated into a significant problem instead of being a major part of the solution.

My purpose is to shatter the illusions of those who find comfort in life underneath the coconut shell. I go beyond and explore ways of toppling this coconut shell, how best to liberate our minds. As individuals we achieve this through travel, learning another language, or experiencing another culture. My emphasis however is at the societal level, principally through information, education, and commerce.

Once there is an open and abundant flow of news and information, people would be exposed to a diversity of opinions and viewpoints. That could only be liberating.

Schools and universities should educate, not indoctrinate the young. To this end I advocate broad-based liberal education. Our students should be functionally bilingual and have an understanding of a third, at a minimum. The curriculum should emphasize critical thinking over rote memorization. Regardless of their career choices, our students should have some understanding of the sciences and be competent in basic mathematics.

As for commerce, if our people were to become entrepreneurs or otherwise engaged in trade, then we would view others more as potential customers instead of enemies. We and they would be much better off for that.

Quite apart from the economic benefits, engaging in commerce is the surest way to liberate our minds; likewise with the free flow of information and liberal education. Those are also the most effective ways of preparing us for the open world once we have toppled our shell.

If we do not adequately prepare our people for the wide open world, then they would find it disorienting and far from exciting or full of opportunities. That would only scare them to flee back underneath the old, familiar and comfortable coconut shell.

The principal path pursued by the UMNO government to spearhead Malay engagement in commerce is through the route of government-linked companies (GLCs). It is also the most expensive. As the government is addicted to GLCs, I devote considerable ink in critically examining this initiative. I am no fan of GLCs; their performance over the decades merely confirms my conviction. The current imbroglio with 1MDB is not only the most recent but also most expensive. I go beyond criticizing to suggesting alternatives.

In the section “Imprisoned by Religion,” I examine the other factor besides culture that is central to Malay life. My two central points are first, we should differentiate between Islam and Arabism, and second, we should be aware of the signal difference between label and content with respect to Islam. If we are cognizant of both then our faith, far from imprisoning us, will in fact emancipate us just as it did the ancient Bedouins.

Lastly (Part Eight, “Where We Are Headed”) I reflect on where we would be if we do not change direction. I expand on the three existential threats to Malays mentioned earlier, the fracturing of Malay society along religious, cultural, and socio-cultural cleavages. At a minimal those threats could derail our Vision 2020 aspirations of becoming a developed society. I also explore what it means to be “developed” as a society, going beyond the familiar socio-economic indicators.

I end as I began, on a positive note. For me this was the most fun part of the book, my question-and-answer sessions with the students. They covered a wide gamut of topics and I have grouped them thematically.

This essay is excerpted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
Next Excerpt #6:  Incentives and Zero-Sum Mindset

The Curse of Our Obsession With Politics

 
Excerpt #4: The Curse of Our Obsession With Politics
M. Bakri Musa
 
Malays hold an almost exclusive grip on the political process and leadership. Through demographic dynamics Malays could rule the country without support from any other community, and still do justice to the principle of representative governance and other niceties of democracy.

That we do not is a tribute to our sense of fairness and justice, reflecting the values of our culture. It also shows that we have not been infected with the destructive virus of tribalism, an affliction that grips even the most sophisticated. This point deserves repeating as it is not widely acknowledged much less appreciated.

Contrary to the delusions of many Malays, this near exclusive grip on political power is not all blessing or an advantage. It would be if handled competently, but current Malay leaders across the political spectrum are far from being adroit or sophisticated. This political power is thus more bane than blessing. It distracts us from other important and equally worthy pursuits, especially economic.

Worse, with politics now all-consuming, it corrupts all our other endeavors. Our academics are but politicians with glorified professorial titles; our singers and writers are known less for their talent and creativity, more for their endless praises for our leaders.

Because of their long unchallenged grip on power, our leaders are infected with the megalomania virus. They are immune to criticisms; worse, they delude themselves into believing that they can do no wrong. They deceive themselves into thinking that they could readily transfer their political “skills” to other spheres. They cannot; the skills required to ascend the party hierarchy are very different from those needed to run a ministry, helm a major corporation, or lead an academic institution. It is the rare individual who could make a smooth and successful transition.

More pernicious is that these leaders are increasingly appealing to and catering for the most extreme elements in their party. They had to, to win party elections. When these politicians become leaders of the country those old bad habits remain; instead of becoming statesmen they remain unrepentant politicians only too willing to resort to political expedience.

This of course is not unique to Malaysia. The American Congress is held hostage by its minority members with extreme views. America can afford such shenanigans as it is already cruising at high altitude. Malaysia is still trying to ascend; if it does not accelerate it will stall and crash.

Malays are in perpetual mortal fear of losing their grip on political power. Thus we view the increasingly diverse political views among us as dangerous and detrimental to our future. Our cultural view of “good” citizenship would have us be like sheep, blindly following the command of our leaders. To our leaders, diverse political views dilute our voting power.

The closed minds of both Malay leaders and followers cannot comprehend that political diversity (as with all diversities) is an asset and a blessing. Only through examining multiple views would we find one that would suit us best. Diversity is Allah’s grand design.

Thankfully, this is changing. A dramatic and refreshing demonstration of this was the recent (July 9, 2011) BERSIH 2.0 demonstrations. Malay leaders in UMNO including Prime Minister Najib spared no effort in demonizing BERSIH’s very visible non-Malay organizers as “unpatriotic” or even “anti-Malay.” The government went beyond and declared the organization illegal. Those who dared wear attires in the movement’s trademark color – yellow – risked being arrested. Shockingly, many were.

It was reprehensible that a week or two before, the Imams in their usual canned sermons issued by the religious department declared the planned public rally haram, thus unnecessarily injecting a divisive religious element to what was essentially a civic matter. Despite all that, thousands of Malays defied their government, imams, and the party that had long presumed to speak on their behalf to take part in the rally. Clearly those Malay demonstrators were no longer trapped by tribalism; they had escaped the clutches of chauvinism. Bless them!

That was a significant milestone. Leaders who ignore this seismic change do so at their peril. For aspiring Malay leaders, it is now no longer sufficient to display their nationalistic zeal or ethnic instincts. They have to articulate the issues that matter most to the Malay masses: fairness, honesty, and justice, in elections and everywhere else. I would also add competence. Those are also the concerns of all Malaysians.

Yes, there was a time when Malay leaders could garner support by justifying that the victims of their corruption, injustices and inequality were non-Malays. Those days are now long gone, get used to that! Not that there was any consolation that their victims were not our kind, for we too could be next. And today we are.

The comforting corollary to my observation on BERSIH 2.0 is that those capable non-Malay leaders could be assured of Malay support if they were to address the central issues facing the masses.

Another encouraging consequence to Malay political diversity and maturity is that we now choose leaders according to our political persuasions and their personal qualities like competence and integrity, instead purely on racial sentiment. There was a time when we would accept even scoundrels as leaders as long as they are Malays. The rationale then was that they may be scoundrels but at least they were our scoundrels! Those days too are now thankfully gone.

Thus while my book focuses only on Malays, it has pertinence to non-Malays, especially those aspiring to lead Malaysia.
 
This essay is adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2013
 
May 31, 2015
Next week: Excerpt #5: Three Defining Moments in Malay Culture