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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.

Monday, January 25, 2016

My Tribute to Badri Muhammad, PhD

My Tribute to Badri bin Muhammad, PhD
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com
 
Last and for a very special reason, I will cite another example of a free mind, Dr. Badri bin Muhammad. Badri was special to many, most immediately his wife and fellow Professor of Chemistry Karen Crouse, and their children Susanna, Adam, Diana, Nadira, and grandson Mitchell.

      Once on meeting a group of Malaysian graduate students here in America, a few happened to have attended University Putra Malaysia. To my query whether they knew of Badri, one bright student beamed widely, “Yes, he was my wonderful chemistry professor!” and the others quickly joined in the praise. Very effusive and very heartfelt, those students were among Badri’s many legacies.

      Badri died recently after a brief illness. He was special to me as we had been dear friends for a long time and shared so many bonds. Our wives knew each other well and so did our children who were of comparable ages.

      Both of us came from rural Malaysia; he from Ulu Kelantan; I, Ulu Muar, Negri Sembilan. Like me, Badri went to Malay College for his Sixth Form but our years there did not overlap; he came right after I left. We met a few years later in Canada when he spent a summer as an undergraduate doing research at the University of Alberta where I was a medical student. We met by chance on campus, and typically Malaysian, he moved that very evening into the apartment I shared with a fellow medical student from Sarawak, Thaddeus Demong.
 
     It also did not take Badri very long to take over our kitchen after tasting our version of Malaysian cuisine, and our nutrition improved considerably thereafter. I remember well his Canadian variation of our sambal, with an extra generous helping of onions and vinegar!
 
     Later that summer we met a group of young Malaysian nurses attending a course on campus. They were taking the same classes as the Canadian degree student nurses, but because those Malaysians had only Form Five qualifications, they could not be formally registered as undergraduates. Also typically Malaysian, those nurses took that restriction in stride.
 
     Not Badri, however. He encouraged the nurses to enroll in a summer course to qualify for formal university admission, with Badri volunteering to coach them especially in the sciences, in return for their cooking us dinners. Badri had earlier served as a temporary science teacher in Malaysia.
 
     The girls took his advice and worked hard all summer, driven by Badri’s firm but kind tutelage. As expected with good teaching, all five passed their “departmentals” and were allowed to formally register as undergraduates that fall. Thus instead of getting merely a “certificate of completion,” those nurses became the first Malaysians to have a degree in nursing. One of them, Nik Safiah Ismail, would later become dean of nursing at UKM and a UN consultant.
 
     That was Badri; he saw opportunities where others would passively accept constraints as the normal order of things.

     Universiti Putra Malaysia was Badri’s academic home; he was a true scientist, passionate about his research. While others were consumed with lobbying for senior administrative positions, Badri was busy guiding his doctoral students and pursuing his passion – research.
 
     For many years he stayed on campus; it was always a joy to visit him and his family there. The UPM campus is one of the most scenic, set in a lush valley away and protected from the urban hustle and bustle not too far away. My blood pressure would drop noticeably whenever I visited them. I always enjoyed those visits; strangely we did not bitch about Malaysia, instead we were busy sharing our experiences in our respective fields and comparing the differences between “bench” versus clinical research.
 
     Badri was the first person I confided in when I decided to leave Malaysia. Like a true friend he was not at all shy in letting me know of his severe disappointment. But also like a true friend, he was supportive of my decision.
 
     At that time the Badris had a daughter and son, both of comparable ages to my daughter and older son. In the first few years after I left, the Badris would frequently visit my parents in Seremban. Those visits meant a lot to my parents, and Badri and Karen knew that, as they allowed my parents to enjoy their grandchildren (my children) Melindah and Zachary albeit vicariously through Sue and Adam.
 
     Badri demonstrated best the halus (soft or subtle) ways of our people, and that being halus does not preclude one from being determined and tenacious. You have to have those qualities to be a good researcher. Badri published his first research paper while still an undergraduate, a rare accomplishment.

     When Badri and Karen visited my wife and me in Canada on their way back to Malaysia after receiving his PhD from Dalhousie, I showed him a Malaysian article profiling a young student who had just been awarded a scholarship to Australia to pursue his doctorate in chemistry. The article touted him to be the “first Malay PhD in chemistry” when he would graduate. Badri simply smiled on seeing that piece!
 
     Realizing that he was probably the first Malay PhD in Chemistry, I complimented him and told him that he had beaten the legendary star of Malay College only a few years our senior, the one dubbed “the sharpest mind ever to step foot at Malay College.” Badri was genuinely embarrassed by the comparison. “I didn’t do too well at Malay College,” he demurred.

      “Not too well” in Badri-speak meant that he was not the top student. The class that Badri joined at Malay College was among the brightest; it was the first batch of the pure science stream. I remember supervising many of their evening “prep” hours. The class had a reputation for intimidating their supervising prefects; they in turn would groan when assigned. As I was the most junior and had the least clout with my fellow prefects, that chore fell on me disproportionately. It was fortuitous, for I thoroughly enjoyed being with those bright young students. Among his classmates was one Ariffin Aton who would later obtain his PhD in Chemical Engineering and would head SIRIM.
 
     Obviously Badri was smart; he would not have been awarded a Colombo Plan scholarship otherwise or been recommended by his teachers.
 
     Badri too was a man of many firsts, but as with his “first Malay PhD in chemistry” bit, they were all unheralded, and that suited him just fine. That was his style – unassuming. When appointed to senior administrative positions, for example being dean, to Badri that simply meant time away from his lab and students. He was one of the few academics who returned smoothly to his laboratory following a detour in administration.

      He was the Foundation Fellow of both the Islamic as well as the Malaysian Academies of Science. Once he gave me a reprint of his latest paper. I had my undergraduate degree in chemistry so I was not lost with the content, but what impressed me was that the paper appeared in a leading international journal.
 
     “You wouldn’t believe the hassles I got over that one,” he volunteered after I complimented him. It turned out that the university was none too pleased with his publishing the paper in English and in an international instead of a local journal!
 
     I am always mindful whenever I write critical commentaries on our education system of individuals like Badri, educators and professionals who gave all they have to their institutions and students despite the huge obstacles and other “hassle factors” they faced daily in their work. The nation would be better off if only those in authority would relent just a wee bit and let individuals like Badri do what they do best.

      The most revealing display of Badri’s halus ways and free-mindedness was his ability to sway his recalcitrant supervisors back home into letting him stay in Canada to pursue his PhD after getting his undergraduate degree. Then as now, the policy was that students had to return first and then wait their turn patiently before being sent abroad again.

      Badri had other ideas; he was already offered a grant from the Canadians to pursue his doctoral work, all he had to do was get that special dispensation from home. I remember discussing at length with him on the best strategy to pursue in convincing the folks back home into letting him stay.
 
      After much deliberation and with great anxiety, he decided to pursue a reverse psychology approach. It helped that the civil servants back in Malaysia who would be making the pivotal decision were just like Badri, so he could easily put himself in their shoes and understand their psychological vulnerabilities.
 
     So in the most polite and deferential tone Badri wrote a long pleading letter in traditional Malay, together with the obligatory elaborate and profuse salutations expressing his heavy heart and sense of serba salah (dilemma) at having to write that letter, but had to do so merely as a favor requested by his professor. It was his professor’s wish that he (Badri) should continue with graduate work directly into the doctoral program. However, he (Badri) wished to return home as he was homesick and was missing his family and Malay food, especially his favorite budu (fish paste).

      When as expected he did not receive a reply, he wrote back again, this time gently reminding his Malaysian supervisor that his professor wanted an answer from him (Badri) soon. This time Badri helpfully added that his professor had heard that Malaysia would soon be opening a second university and would need qualified candidates to staff it. And his professor wanted to contribute to this endeavor by training Badri.
 
     The reply came finally, a few months later when already deeply engaged in his graduate work. “Tuan di arahkan melanjutkan ... ” (“You are directed to pursue further studies...”) Badri was ecstatic. He had outwitted those civil service guys back home.

      A few years later I met another Malaysian; he too was a scholarship student but was then residing abroad. I asked him how he did it, thinking it might be a variation of Badri’s move. He replied that he simply absconded; he did not bother to return or in any way communicate with the folks back home. What about his scholarship bond? It seemed that the authorities in Malaysia had lost his file!

     I thought Badri was smart, but this character was shrewd. On second thought though, I think Badri would not contemplate simply skipping out. That would not be the Badri I knew.

     When you have a free mind as Badri had, it would be easy for you to put yourself in your adversaries' moccasins, as the natives here would put it, and thus figure out their thinking. Once you can do that, you are already one step ahead. That was my lesson from Badri.

      My long story on him, apart from being my way of paying tribute to a long dear friend, is to demonstrate precisely this point about a free mind. The other is that when you have a free mind, you can easily focus on your objectives and not be distracted by the current fads. Badri was a scientist right from the very beginning; he had a passion for it, and he remained a true “bench scientist” right to the end. May Allah bless his soul!
 
Adapted from the author's book. Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2013.
 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Free Minds, Free Individuals

 Free Minds, Free Individuals
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com

The achievements of such individuals as Ungku Aziz and Raja Petra, as well as the giants in our history as Tun Razak, Datuk Onn and Munshi Abdullah, should inspire us to pursue liberating our minds.
 
    However, should their fame and outstanding accomplishments have the opposite effect, as in making us feel small and thus dissuading us from emulating them, let me cite examples of seemingly ordinary individuals who may not have grabbed the headlines but nonetheless demonstrated free minds in solving their unique problems.
 
     Because of their seemingly ordinary lives, we are more likely to identify with them. There is however, nothing ordinary about their accomplishments or their approaches to problem solving.

      There was a student sent abroad to pursue his masters in engineering. Through smarts and diligence, he was soon admitted directly to the doctoral program. He did not bother to tell his supervisor back home for he anticipated a negative response.
 
     His scholarship however, was only for two years, not enough time for a doctoral pursuit. That did not deter him. At the end of the second year he wrote his supervisor back home for an extension, citing a “slight snag” in his studies. He filled his pleading letter with sob stories of the challenges with English and mathematics.

     His supervisor back home, familiar with such plights among Malay students, readily extended the scholarship for another year, together with a stern warning to “study harder.” At the end of the third year the student still needed a few more months. So he ignored the ensuing stream of warning letters and instead focused on his dissertation. He completed it just in time to receive that final letter from Malaysia suspending his scholarship.

     When he returned with an impressive PhD instead of a mere Masters, far from congratulating him, his supervisor chastised him! “Pandai memandai!” Trying to be too smart! That supervisor complained about having to find another candidate to fill the lecturer post at the local polytechnic that was slated for this student. Meanwhile the newly minted PhD readily found a university position, and thus avoided defaulting on his scholarship bonds.
 
     To make a long story even longer, he was invited to present his paper, based on his doctoral research, at a prestigious conference in America. True to form, his Vice-Chancellor refused to grant him leave, much less fund the trip. The reasoning was that he was far too fresh a recruit to be granted such a privilege. Resourceful as ever, he found a corporate sponsor and traveled on his vacation time.
 
     That young academic is an example of a free mind that dared forge his own path.

     Then there was the student who graduated from a top American university. He had of course no difficulty securing a job in America. However, there was the problem of his scholarship bonds.
 
     So at the interview back home, he purposely bombed it. His interviewers were heard muttering how unimpressed they were with American universities and regretted not being able to offer the young man a position. Released of his obligation, the young man could hardly wait to fly back to America.
 
     As the young man would later relate to me, he was not about to pin his future on a man who could not distinguish between Stamford College and Stanford University, regardless of how esteemed his local titles and reputation. 
 
     For contrast, consider our third student. He too graduated from an elite American university, with a PhD no less. I asked him what his plans were, and his answer surprised me. He was waiting for instructions from his Vice-Chancellor back home.
 
     I suggested that he pursue post-doctoral work to broaden his research expertise, or work in America to get some valuable experience. Indeed he was offered a lucrative position, enough to pay off his scholarship bonds if need be. However, being an obedient student (Kami menurut arahan!), he patiently waited for instructions from home.

      A few years later I visited him in Malaysia; he was unhappy with his lot. His Vice-Chancellor found him keras kepala (hardheaded). That is another of those dismissive terms for a free-minded individual. Too bad that he was not keras kepala when he was in America when he had the opportunity to carve his own future!
 
     This fellow reminded me of another student, described by his teachers as “the sharpest mind ever to set foot at Malay College.” As expected, he excelled abroad and was offered the opportunity to pursue doctoral studies by his university. However, his supervisor back home convinced him of a better plan. So he returned.
 
     To cut a short story shorter, his highest achievement was being director of a matriculation program at a local university. He never did get his doctorate; a bright promise unfulfilled. Alas, his was not an isolated case; I could fill a book with many such sad stories.
 
     The first two students are examples of courageous individuals who dared think for themselves and ignored the commands of their superiors. They are worthy of our emulation. As for the last two, I hope we all avoid their fate not so much for our own selfish reasons but for the sake of our country.
 
     Consider the legendary P. Ramlee. Every Malaysian can hum a few of his songs; his rich voice warms our hearts and his melodies dance in our memories.
 
     He sought to impart his considerable skills and share his vast experience with the music students at MARA Institute of Technology. However, the dean of that institution would have none of it as Ramlee did not have any formal academic qualifications.
 
     Imagine the loss to those young students and in turn our society, all because of the closed-mindedness of that dean. As can be seen, the curse of a trapped mind extends far beyond its bearer.
 
     The worst part was that the dean did not feel at all embarrassed in relating this incident many years later in an article in the mainstream media on the anniversary of P. Ramlee’s death.
 
     That is the tragedy of such a mind; it does not even realize that it is being imprisoned. This dean sports an impressive academic qualification (impressive at least to his administrators), but the “higher education” he acquired did not liberate his mind. It is still trapped, not by steel bars but by a few obscure lines in the university’s rule book.

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

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Ungku Aziz and Raja Petra - Exemplars of Contemporary Free Minds

Ungku Aziz and Raja Petra – Exemplars of Contemporary Free Minds
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com
 
Hang Jebat and Hang Nadim are but characters in our legends, but the chronicles of their exploits serve as eternal lessons of what a free-mind can achieve. Munshi Abdullah and Datuk Onn were giants in our history, but many especially the young may not have heard of or find them interesting. So I will cite a pair of contemporary figures as exemplars of a free mind.

      Many know of Ungku Aziz, a man of many firsts. I will not enumerate them because they are not pertinent to my story. To me, he is a man whose insight on rural (and thus Malay) poverty is unmatched. Equally unmatched is our present leaders’ inability or unwillingness to tap his vast expertise.

      I first heard of him as a secondary school student in the late 1950s while visiting the University of Malaya. There was a lull in our schedule and we were let loose in the library. Among the stacks of books there was one that attracted my attention, a thick volume, The Fragmentation of Estates. Below that was the author’s name, “Ungku A. Aziz.”
 
     What drew my attention was of course the author’s name. In those days it was rare to see a Malay name attached to a book, except perhaps a trashy novel on jinns or hookers. (It still seems that way today!) Even though I did not understand a word in the book (it was a classic socio-economic study of the rubber industry in the early years of independence), it nonetheless made a huge impression on me.
 
     Here I was a high school student; I had difficulty even completing reading my much thinner textbooks. Yet in front of me was this thick volume on a substantive topic written by a Malay. It inspired me! I wondered whether someday I too could have my name appended to a book of similar substance.

     Unlike others who are content merely with cataloging the ills of Malay society and then dredging up old ugly stereotypes to “explain” our socio-economic backwardness, Ungku Aziz approached the problem systematically. He studied poor rural Malay families, from measuring the heights and weights of their children (indicators of nutritional status and thus economic level) to recording the number of sarongs per household – his famous “sarong index” of rural poverty.

     One of his many studies debunked the view widely held (then as well as now, and not just by non-Malays) that we Malays do not save or respond to modern economic incentives. Indeed a casual observer would conclude similarly, seeing the small number of accounts by Malays in financial institutions. And when the British tried to increase the interest rates of postal savings accounts to encourage Malays to save, we did not respond as the colonials had expected.

     In his studies Ungku Aziz discovered that the reality was far different. Malays were indeed diligent savers as attested to the ubiquitous bamboo tabongs in Malay homes. We saved for weddings and of course for a trip to Mecca, the aspiration of all Muslims. However, we did not use conventional savings institutions like banks because of our religious prohibitions against ribaa (interest).

     It is a tribute to the genius of Ungku Aziz that he not only identified the problem correctly (key towards solving it) but went on to create institutions that would cater to the specific economic needs of Malays. Thus was born Tabung Haji, a mutual fund-like financial institution that takes in Malay savings, especially from rural areas, and invests them in halal enterprises (meaning, no casinos or breweries). The returns on such investments were rightly labeled as fa’edah (dividends) and not bunga (interest), thus satisfying Malay religious sensitivities.
 
     Today Tabung Haji is one of the largest financial institutions in Southeast Asia, a tribute to the brilliance of one man, one whose mind is not trapped by the conventional wisdom and thinking.
 
     There are today many more Malay economists, some sporting impressive doctorates from elite universities. Thus you would expect a quantum leap in the number of innovations like Tabung Haji to cater to the special and specific needs of Malays. Alas this is not the case. Instead what we have are a plethora of government-linked companies and similar entities more adept at sucking precious public funds out of Treasury and then squandering them.

      Even Tabung Haji has not demonstrated any innovation since its inception. No one has carried the ball forward. I would have thought those eminently trained economists that Prime Minister Najib brags about being on his team would expand Tabung’s reach, like catering for Muslims in the region, or offering services beyond Hajj and umrah. I would have expected Tabung Haji to have its own fleet of aircrafts and branch offices in every village, not to mention expanding its lending activities beyond. Tabung Haji should have also long ago driven those usurious Chettiars and Ah Longs out of business.

      As is evident, impressive academic qualifications or holding an exalted position does not equal or signal a free and innovative mind. Often times the more impressive your title and position are, or the degrees you have accumulated, the more beholden you are to expectations. Your mind is trapped into thinking of only complex solutions while missing out on the simple, inexpensive and less sexy ones.

      The reverse is probably even more true, that is, those without exalted titles or positions are freer and unafraid to express themselves. Raja Petra Kamarudin best exemplifies this. Many do not know or care who the chief editor of The New Straits Times or any of the other mainstream media is, but almost all have heard of and more importantly pay attention to Raja Petra. A reflection of his fame or notoriety (from the government’s view) is that he is recognized simply by his initials. He is truly transformational, to use Najib’s favorite and over-used word, and a phenomenon.

      A scion of the Selangor royal family, RPK could have easily followed in the footsteps of so many of his peers, living it up courtesy of the generous royal civil allowance. Instead he became a successful entrepreneur, a genuine one in contrast to hordes of the ersatz variety that plagues our community. Now retired from his business, he devotes himself to his wildly popular and highly influential website, Malaysia-Today.
 
     His first presence in cyberspace was in 1995, the dawn of the digital age, with his rather unimaginative “Raja Petra’s Homepage.” At that time he was one of the few who dared write uncomplimentary articles on the government. He was also among the first to predict the impending split between Prime Minister Mahathir and his then deputy, Anwar, at a time when the former was “110 percent” behind the latter. RPK sensed the maneuvering of Anwar’s underlings eager to replace Mahathir’s.
 
     Then like so many Malaysians who were deeply offended by the government’s treatment of Anwar, RPK started his “Free Anwar” webpage. When Anwar was finally freed, far from losing a cause and withering away, Pete, as he is known by those who know him well, started Malaysia-Today with the avowed purpose “to teach Malaysians how to think, to dissent, to question, and much more,” as he once told a BBC interviewer. And with that, RPK blossomed and Malaysia is the beneficiary.

     There are many other news portals and Internet sites including those of the established media, but none matches Raja Petra’s Malaysia-Today in terms of readership and influence. The government is only too aware of this, hence the frequent attempts at blocking the site. The authorities even resorted to arresting him under the ISA but the man was unfazed. The last time he was held, the government had to quickly release him unconditionally as he threatened a hunger strike. To this day, he remains the only ISA prisoner to be released unconditionally.
 
     The Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s free-mindedness while being imprisoned blossomed his mind to craft those wonderful Pulau Buru quartet novels; Raja Petra’s led to his unconditional release.

     Pramoedya said it best. When asked how he could have managed to craft such wonderful works while being imprisoned under the most inhumane conditions, responded, “I create freedom for myself!” That is the awesome power of a free mind!

Monday, January 04, 2016

Munshi Abdullah - Exemplar of a Free Mind

Munshi Abdullah – Exemplar of a Free Mind
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com
 
Malay society has no shortage of formal leaders. First we have the hereditary leaders, from the sultan down to his various lowly chieftains including the local datuk lembaga (lord admiral). This pattern of leadership has a long history in our society.
 
     Then came the religious leaders, of more recent vantage, introduced in the 15th Century with the coming of Islam to the Malay world. More recently and fast gaining a pivotal role, are political leaders.
 
     With modern political institutions, especially democratic ones, we should expect a more frequent emergence of fresh leaders. This is not necessarily so. China is far from being a democratic society yet its People Congress gets more infusion of fresh talents with each party’s election. Compare that to the United States Congress, the self-declared exemplar of representative government. You are more likely to get a new member of the old Soviet Politburo than you are to get a new member of US Congress.
 
     UMNO, the premier Malay political organization, is on par with the old Soviet Politburo in nurturing new talent.
 
      Despite modernity, both hereditary and religious leaders still have a strong hold on Malays.

      The problem with both types of leadership is that they are by nature conservative; each successor maintaining and replicating the pattern set by his predecessor. With hereditary rulers, this could be the matter of genetics or familial upbringing. With religious leaders, the pattern of training or learning. It is the rare student who would deviate from his teacher’s path to blaze a new trail. This is especially so with the Islamic tradition of learning where the emphasis is on taqlid (to follow or to imitate).
 
     Stated more succinctly, do not expect much innovation or expressions of free-mindedness from such leaders.
 
     Human society however, is complex. One does not need to have a formal role as leader, or be anointed as one, to have an impact on society. Often such de novo leaders, unburdened by tradition or expectations, exhibit remarkable free-mindedness and can be transformative.

      One such leader in Malay society was Munshi Abdullah. Today he is held in low esteem and dismissed as a brown Mat Salleh (an epithet for Englishman) by our revisionist historians and self-proclaimed champions of Ketuanan Melayu. They even ridicule his “impure” Malay heritage.
 
      These present-day Malay nationalists, still trapped in the relics of their old anti-colonial mental prison, are perturbed that Abdullah’s free-mindedness let him collaborate with the colonialists. Abdullah even translated the bible! Today he would have been labeled a murtad (apostate) and sent to a re-education camp – Islamic style. Worse, he could be imprisoned without trial for an indeterminate period. Imagine the loss!
 
     Bless the old colonial English for letting Abdullah be who he was. Mushi Abdullah should also thank his lucky stars that he was born during colonial times and not in today’s Malaysia.

     To the free-minded Abdullah, working with the colonialists of his time meant the opportunity to expand his intellectual horizon and learn of the advances of the West. Most of all he wanted to understand what made the British tick. He did not ignore but instead nurtured his innate human nature of being curious and inquisitive.
 
     When the British invited him to visit a colonial warship for example, he was not a mere casual visitor. He recorded his experiences, complete with drawings of the contraption, and then challenged his readers to wonder what was it about British minds that made them invent such awesome machines. If the miracle of steel did not astound the visitor, ponder the fact that the British could even make it float!
 
     Today, more than a century and a half after his death, we are still benefiting from Abdullah’s writings and wisdom. We do not remember who the sultan was at Abdullah’s time, but we remember Abdullah through his written words.
 
     Today we sent many of our leaders and also would-be leaders abroad, a few to the great universities of the world.  What do they bring back?

     Abdullah’s free-mindedness enabled him to appreciate the advancements of the British, as with their warships and books. He was not at all embarrassed to acknowledge that his own people were far behind. To Abdullah, there was nothing to be ashamed about that; he looked upon it as an opportunity to learn from and catch up with them. Far from shunning the British he worked closely with them, leading many today to contemptuously dismiss him as a colonial hired hand.
 
     Yes, he was handsomely compensated for teaching our language to the English, but he was also providing a valuable service them. Now those colonials could better communicate with and understand our people.
 
     Abdullah learned much from the British. No, he did not learn how to forge steel or make it float, but he learned something much more profound. He saw how those colonials communicated with each other, their style of writing, and their penchant for documenting their experiences. Abdullah too began doing that, writing about his travels and experiences. And he did it in the style of the British – direct, factual, and with the minimal of formalities. With that, Abdullah transformed Malay literature.

      Up until then Malay writings, as with our letters to the sultans and high officials, were heavy on formalities, with rigid highly stylized forms of salutations that would fill the entire page and often obscure the message. Abdullah initiated the direct and factual style of writing, emulating the British.
 
     As for Malay literature, up until his time it had been nothing more than the stylized repeating of phrases and proverbs, facts liberally mixed with imagination and conjecture, and written in the indirect third person as in the various Hikayats. Abdullah was the first to write directly and with a personal (first person) perspective, as with his Hikayat Abdullah.

     Such are the powers of those with a free mind; they brazenly pave new paths so others may follow. What our Malay community needs now is not a new culture, another “mental revolution,” or even greater mindless assertions of Ketuanan Melayu but more of those individuals with free minds as exemplified by Munshi Abdullah, especially among our leaders.

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