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.
Four Factors That Determine the Fate of a Society
M. Bakri Musa
Third of Six Parts
In my earlier two essays I highlighted the issues surrounding the “Malay Problem.” I suggested that it is not unique unto our community. As such, there is much that we could learn from others, from successful societies on what to do, and the unsuccessful ones on what not to do.
There are four critical factors that determine the fate of a society: leadership; people; culture (this includes institutions, governmental as well as non-governmental, religious as well as non-religious); and geography. In an earlier book, Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I put forth the concept of the “Diamond of Development,” with each factor interacting with and influencing the other three.
For example, wise leaders would invest in their citizens, ensuring that they would receive good education so they could make better and more informed decisions, as well as be more productive. Good leaders also foster good institutions, and protect the country’s natural resources and the environment. Educated and wise citizens would in turn elect prudent leaders, and the positive-loop feedback would rapidly lead to a quantum leap in the advancement of that society.
The reverse is also true. Meaning, a corrupt leader would bribe his way to power by literally buying citizens’ votes. Corrupt citizens would reinforce this negative loop feedback by electing even more corrupt leaders, and a vicious cycle thus ensues. Once that takes hold, the rapid and irreversible decline of a nation into another Nigeria or Pakistan is all but certain. Malaysia is on that rapid downward trajectory today under Najib’s leadership.
The perversity is that Najib does not consider his buying of citizens’ votes as a corrupt act. On the contrary he deems that an act of public service!
Let’s explore the interactions of leaders, people, and culture towards geography. Take Norway and Saudi Arabia. Both are blessed with an abundance of oil. In Saudi Arabia all you have to do is drill a hole in the desert sand and the oil would gush out. In Norway the oil is below the deep frigid North Sea, swept by huge waves and strong winds. Its oil is considerably more difficult and expensive to extract.
When oil was first discovered there in the 1970s, the Norwegians pretended that they did not have the windfall and saved nearly all their oil earnings. After all they had lived for centuries without the oil bonanza; they saw no reason to change their lifestyle and be suddenly profligate.
As a result, today the Norwegian oil trust fund is expected to reach a trillion (a million million) US dollars by 2020. If all economic activities in the country were to cease, the Norwegians could still live quite well off their trust fund’s earnings.
At another level, because of the fund’s size Norway could impose its own standards for ethical investing. Its investment policies are much more “Islamic” than those of the Saudis. The Norwegians have for example, divested from such local Malaysian companies as Samling Global for its illegal logging activities and horrible environmental and ecological practices, as well as from Singapore Engineering Technologies for its production of landmines.
Back to the Saudis, with the drop in oil price, they are now facing a deficit. One could easily imagine those Bedouins reverting to their primitive desert existence once their oil runs out.
Similar geographic blessings, but what a difference in the fate of the two societies simply because of the differences in leadership, people, and culture.
A more local and sinister example of leader/geography toxic dynamics is demonstrated by the environmental disaster now poisoning Kuantan from bauxite mining. The worse part is that no official, from federal ministers down to the state chief minster, displays any sense of urgency or in any way demonstrates concerns on the ongoing environmental catastrophe. The sultan, despite his frequent public claims of looking after his subjects’ interests, remains curiously silent.
Of the four factors, only one cannot be changed, and that is geography. Why a country is blessed with oil or cursed with typhoons and earthquakes, Allah hu alam (only Allah knows).
Of the remaining three factors, the easiest to change is leadership. A single bullet eliminated Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and South Korea’s General Pak. The most difficult to change is culture. Even the most determined leader like Mahathir had to admit defeat in this endeavor.
People on the other hand are more amenable to change, and quickly too, both individually and as a society. My Iban friend Thaddeus Demong remembers vividly his headhunter father scalping Japanese soldiers during the war. Through superior education and in only one generation, the young Demong was transformed to a well-known corneal transplant surgeon in Canada.
I used to tease Dr. Demong that the only difference between him and his late father is this. Demong Junior is more refined in his skills, harvesting only the corneas rather than the whole head, and getting very well compensated for that!
On a societal level, Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore Chinese from one prone to uncouth loud hacking and disgusting spitting on the streets to the most hygienic Asian community. Visit Beijing and Singapore; the residents in both cities are Chinese, but what a difference in their level of personal and social hygiene! When those mainland Chinese visit the island republic, you can tell them apart right away from the local variety.
In Liberating The Malay Mind I explore the ways in which Malays can change, as individuals as well as a society. I examine what it is about us, individually as well as collectively, such that we have not been able to change for the better during these past few generations.
Next: Fourth of Six Parts: Our Closed Minds The Biggest Barrier
Speech delivered at the launching by Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz of my book, Liberating The Malay Mind, on January 30 at Shah Alam.
In Part One I argued that the “Malay Problem” is real and not simply a myth. As such we could study, analyze and research it systematically so as to enable us to craft sensible solutions and develop pilot programs to overcome it. In short, a problem is potentially solvable, in contrast to a mere myth where we would have to employ dukuns to exorcize our demons.
In this essay I argue that our problem is not unique unto our community. A just and compassionate Allah would not single out Malays to be thus burdened. Nor have our ancestors committed grievous sins for Allah now to punish us, their zuriats (descendants).
The corollary to my observation is that there is much that we can learn from others, from those who have been successful on what to do, as well as from those not so lucky on what not to do.
Lessons From Others
When I lived in Montreal in the 1970s, I was struck by the barely-concealed contempt the English-Canadians had of their French-speaking compatriots. Struck not by its strangeness rather its familiarity, what with memories of Malaysia of the 1950s still fresh in me, and reinforced by my having visited Malaysia during the height of the May 1969 race riots.
Those Francophones were interested only in their beer, weekend frolics, and making babies, the English-Canadians sneered. Come Sunday morning those French-Canadians would flock to their churches to confess their sins. Cleansed and refreshed, by Monday they would start the whole destructive cycle all over again.
McGill University, the country’s premier institution, was then conspicuous for its rarity of Francophone students. Sounds all too familiar at that time to a Malaysian.
A few decades earlier and across the Atlantic in Ireland, the dynamics between the majority Catholic Irish and minority Protestant English too seemed deja vu to a Malaysian. The mutual contempt and disdain they had for each other would every so often erupt into their own version of “May 13 incident.” Again, all too familiar to a Malaysian!
If any Irish parents then were to aspire higher and dream of a better future for their children by enrolling them in the much superior “godless” Protestant English schools and colleges, they risked being excommunicated. That is, being a murtad, to put in local lingo, by the Catholic Church.
Meanwhile in Italy, those northerners considered their compatriots from the south as all gangsters and members of the mafia. If only it could get rid of the southern part of the country, Italy would be crime-free and fast become an economic power, those northerners claimed.
There are other ready examples. In my book, Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, I noted the remarkable similar dynamics we Malays had vis a vis the English colonialists as the Koreans their Japanese colonizers. Granted, Korea’s colonization was much briefer, but its brutality was unmatched. For example, those Koreans were not allowed even to speak their language; they also had to “Japanize” their names.
Today, the Irish and South Koreans are very different societies. Consider that Ryan Air, the Dublin-based discount airline, once attempted a takeover of venerable British Airways! As for South Korea, Samsung smart phones have bested even Apple’s. Even rice cookers are now Korean-made, eclipsing Japan’s National brand.
As for the French-Canadians, consider that Hydro Quebec is the world’s largest generator of renewal energy through its hydroelectric plants while Bombardier, the original skidoo manufacturer started by a French-Canadian mechanic in his garage, is a leader in regional jets and rapid transit transportation. Meanwhile the next President of Stanford is a French-Canadian, and not just any French-Canadian but one who was the first in his immediate family to attend college.
Going back to the Ireland of the 1950s, substitute Irish for Malays, the English for non-Malays (the Chinese specifically), Catholicism for Islam, and the entrenched clergy class for JAKIM and our government-issued ulamas, the social dynamics would be eerily comparable.
In Malaysia in the Era of Globalization I also cited a negative example, Argentina. A century ago it was a shining star, “The Land of Silver.” Today it struggles through one crisis after another, economic and otherwise.
My point here is that the so-called “Malay Problem” is not unique unto us. Societies that were once colonized or one just emerging from peasantry and subsistence existence share similar tribulations. And Malay society is both.
The corollary to my observation is that there is much that we can learn from the Irish, French-Canadians, and South Koreans on what to do, as well as from the Argentineans on what not to do.
There is yet another though minor facet to the Malay problem, and I will illustrate it thus. I know of many Malays who have graduated from elite American universities or have succeeded in America, but they are not from Malaysia, or if from there originally now no longer consider themselves Malaysians except perhaps only emotionally.
Consider that the first Malay Harvard PhD was not from Malaysia but Thailand, Surin Pitsuwan. He received his degree 18 years before Perak’s Raza Nazrin had his. Raza Nazrin was a crown prince while Surin was an ordinary citizen from impoverished southern Thailand. Ponder that!
Yet another observation. At one time there were more Malays from Singapore than from Malaysia at UC Berkeley. Last, I know of many Malay medical specialists in America, but again only a few are from Malaysia. The others came from such places as South Africa and Sri Lanka.
You can bet that there are no Ketuanan Melayu doctrines in those countries.
I once chided an important visitor from Malaysia who could not stop bragging about his son attending a third-rate American university on a Malaysian government scholarship. I reminded him not-so-subtly that the man driving him around during his visit to California, a Malay originally from Kedah, had a son who graduated from the University of Southern California, an elite campus, sans any MARA or government scholarship.
When I told Ahmad Sabian that I have more respect for him than those Malaysian “big shots” he was driving around, he could not hold back his tears, the tears of joy, pride and accomplishment.
Today, nearly six decades after merdeka, with the sultans and prime ministers being Malays, a government almost exclusively in Malay hands, and a national constitution that blatantly favors our community, we are still left behind. I explore this paradox in my next essay.
Next: Third of Six Parts: Four Foundations That Would Determine the Fate of A Society
Speech delivered at the launching by Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz of my book, Liberating The Malay Mind, on January 30 at Shah Alam.
Endless, Meaningless Debates on "The Malay Problem"
Debates on “The Malay Problem”
First of Six Parts
For as long as I
can remember, the so-called Masaalah
Melayu (“The Malay Problem”) has been stridently debated ad nauseam. Endless
meaningless seminars, symposiums and “kongresses,”
have been devoted to it, not to mention the countless discussions at Pak Mat’s warong kopi in Kota Baru to the lofty
ministerial suites at Putrajaya
I am now entering the seventh decade
of my life. Chances are that when my grandchildren become grandparents, our
community would still be debating the issue.
Pendita Zaaba was the first to coin
the phrase “Masaalah Melayu.” In his prolific
writings he would never cease to menegur
(chastise) our community for our spendthrift ways, our not emphasizing education
for our young, and our myopic interpretations of our great faith of Islam.
Earlier in the 19th
Century, Munshi Abdullah wondered out loud what it was about our community that
we were not at all curious about and thus not eager to learn from the English.
Yes, they were our colonizers, but surely as Abdullah noted, there must be
something that we could learn from a society that brought in the Age of
Enlightenment as well as ushered in the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions.
More recently there was Datuk Onn,
arrogantly wanting to membetulkan orang
Melayu (to correct the Malays). To him we were but wayward children who needed
to be whipped into shape.
Then there was Mahathir who thought
that Malays were OKU, a Malay acronym
for those who are challenged, mentally, physically and in many other ways. His messianic
mission was to change us, our culture as well as our biology. He too failed; he
could not even change his own OKUs
(Orang Kuat UMNO – diehard UMNO supporters).
Compared to those giants, today’s Perkasa’s
Ibrahim Ali and other strident champions of Ketuanan
Melayu are but mere pygmies. Giants or pygmies, the results of their
efforts are, well, we are still discussing the issue.
I likened the “Malay Problem” to an
elephant in a dark room. What these giants and pygmies had done was merely to shine
the light from only one angle, the rear. No surprise that what they saw was its
posterior and all its ugliness. They also dared not examine the view closely
for fear of being whipped by the beast’s tail, or worse, get sprayed.
In my book Liberating The Malay
Mind, as well as in all my earlier books, I shine the light from as many
different angles as possible so as to get a better appreciation of the
magnitude and complexity of the problem, as well as all its myriad
I begin by posing four fundamental
questions. One, what is meant by the phrase “The Malay Problem?” Two, is it a genuine
problem or merely a myth? Three, if it is the former, is it unique only unto
Malays? And four, why is it now with Malaysia about to celebrate its Diamond Anniversary
of Merdeka, with the sultans and prime ministers being Malays, the government
almost exclusively in Malay hands, as well as a constitution that is blatantly
favoring our community, Malays are still left behind?
My Liberating The Malay Mind explores this particular question. Before
proceeding, I will briefly dispose of the first three.
The meaning of the phrase “The Malay
Problem” is best answered through a series of illustrations rather than with a
If you, a Malay, has a leaky pipe at
home or a broken air-conditioner, who would you most likely call to fix the
problem? Ahmad, Ah Chong, Arumugam, or even not a Malaysian?
Walk along any street of any town. You
don’t see many signboards touting Rahimah Restaurant, Halimah Hair Saloon, or
Aziz Accountancy Services. Don’t keep your eyes off the road too much in looking
for those signboards lest you risk being run down by those road roaches, the
Mat Rempits on their ear-splitting motorcycles.
Incidentally where would those Mat
Rempits go to have their machines fixed?
Yes, we have ZICO, the country’s
largest law firm founded by Datuk Zaid Ibrahim. Such successes however are the
“outliers,” not reflective of the norm.
Then open up the daily papers. The
headlines are of hundreds of thousands of unemployed graduates, babies
abandoned in toilets and ditches, and the epidemic of drug addicts and HIV
sufferers ravaging our society.
You do not need to read the World
Bank Reports or expensive consultants’ studies to realize that our community is
fast being marginalized in our own Tanah Melayu.
Even by the government’s own
accounting, our contribution to the economy barely exceeds 20 percent, despite
we being in the majority. Take away the role of the government-linked companies
(GLCs), and our contribution is but in the single digits, percentage wise.
The “Malay Problem” is real, not just
a mere myth. Noam Chomsky differentiates between a problem and a myth thus.
With a problem you could study, analyze and research it, hire experts to help you,
and design pilot programs to overcome it. When you have a successful
initiative, expand on it. Likewise, when you have an ineffective one, terminate
it right away and learn from the experience. In short, a problem is potentially
With myths on the other hand, you
would need a shaman or dukun. He
would chant mysterious verses, invoke unseen forces, burn incense, cook yellow
saffron rice, and slaughter black cockerels to appease those evil spirits.
Malays behave as if we are being
bedeviled by myths and not problems. We invoke various hantus (devils) as sources of our difficulties, as with the hantu of colonialism, hantu pendatang (immigrants), hantu capitalism, and the latest, hantu globalization and hantu “Islam liberal.”
The “Malay Problem” is real, not a
mere myth ala Syed Hussein’s Myth of the Lazy Native. The next query
then is whether our problem is unique only unto us. I will explore this and the
other two questions in subsequent essays.
Next: Second of
Six Parts – The Malay Problem Is Not Unique Unto Us
at the launching by Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz of my book, Liberating The Malay Mind, on January 30 at Shah Alam.
I enjoy giving talks to Malaysian students. It is invigorating to be with the young; their passion, enthusiasm and idealism do rub off on me.
My hope is that when they become leaders they will hold as role models the likes of Hang Nadim and Hang Jebat, and emulate the giants in our history like Munshi Abdullah and Datuk Onn. I also hope that they will be as innovative as Ungku Aziz and Raja Petra, and like them, not be trapped by the conventional wisdom. Most of all I hope they will be as diligent and resourceful as Badri Muhammad.
In my advice to students, I remind them that their future is in their own hands. No one, not their parents, advisors on campus and the embassy, or sponsors back home, knows what is best for them. I tell these students that those other people may be sincere when offering their advice but they have not traveled the same path you have taken or experienced the challenges you have faced.
Most of all they will not be the ones to bear the consequences of your decision. By all means listen to their counsel, but in the end the decision is yours. About all the others could do after offering their advice would be to also offer you their prayers and best wishes. They should support, not veto your decision.
I claim no originality to that piece of advice. This was what my late father passed on to me. I have found it useful, hence my sharing it. We all wish our young to have calm seas ahead and fair winds behind. However if they do encounter the inevitable squalls, they should be ready to trim their sails and batten their hatches. As for the swells, they should have their surfboards ready to ride the waves and take in the exhilaration!
That is what a free mind does; turns adversities into opportunities. Suharto imprisoned Prameodya Ananta Toer, but only his body. His mind was free, free to craft his world-acclaimed Buru tetralogy. He created his own freedom. That is what we should all aspire to.
Likewise when Hamka was imprisoned, also by that goon Suharto, he wrote his multivolume and authoritative Tafsir Al Azhar, a commentary, not a translation of the Holy Koran. In his later years Hamka would muse that had he not been imprisoned he would probably have not written that Tafseer as he would be too busy giving lectures and khutbas!
As a coda I quote our great poet Usman Awang; he said it best in the last-but-one verse of his poem, Melayu (Malay), on the essence of a free mind.
Jangan takut melanggar pantang Jika pantang menghalang kemajuan; Jangan segan menentang larangan Jika yakin kepada kebenaran; Jangan malu mengucapkan keyakinan Jika percaya kepada keadilan.
Fearlessly breach the fortress If it blocks your progress!
If needed, be brusque
In pursuit of the truth. Be unashamed of your conviction Let justice be your declaration.
There are so many larangans (obstacles) in the life of a Malaysian today. We must menentang (oppose) them if we yakinkepada kebenaran and percaya kepada keadilan (have faith in the truth and believe in justice).
Kemajuan (progress), kebenaran (truth) and keadilan (justice); a free mind will hold those in high esteem and vigilantly guard against those who would erode or corrode those pristine values.
Adapted from the author's book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications. The revised second edition was released on January 30th, 2016.