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 False Comfort and Security Underneath the Coconut Shell
Comfort and Security Underneath the Coconut Shell
The North Koreans are convinced that they live in Paradise
because their “Beloved Leader” tells them so. Never mind that they wake up
every morning with nothing to look forward to, and go to sleep at night on an
empty stomach. Likewise, Malaysian leaders never tire of telling us that they
are competent and honest despite the mess the country is in, while they
luxuriate in palatial mansions and citizens struggle to eke out a living. Those
leaders could not possibly afford such obscene opulence just on their
government wages. However, express your doubts and you stand accused of being blasphemous,
disloyal, or even traitorous.
to the coconut shell metaphor, that little (or even big) frog can be smug about
his world and claim to comprehend and be in full command of it. After all what
is there to understand or command? His world is dark and small. He is the only
one to obey his orders!
proverbial Señor Froggie does not appreciate is that his universe, huge as it
may seem to him, is nothing but a speck.
the outside may be tempted to lord it over the unfortunate entrapped frog. We
may even pity it. However, as Pramoedya noted in his Child of All Nations, “Pity is the feeling of well-intentioned
people who are unable to act.” Impotent, we assuage what little guilt we may
harbor by rationalizing that the poor soul is probably quite happy with his lot.
That may well be; after all you do not miss what you do not know or have.
many forces, subtle as well as brute, that keep us cooped under our coconut
shell. The subtle ones include the feudal elements of our culture, as with our
ready acceptance of our fate (takdir)
and our meek acceptance of and deference to authority figures. Then there are
our schools and universities; they indoctrinate our young instead of teaching
them to think critically. We are also easily taken in with labels; call something
“Islamic” and we fall for it right away, suspending our critical judgment. I
understand that they are working on an “Islamic” beer! Our leaders exploit this
by labeling those they disagree with as anti-Islam, “anti-nationals,” or
“unpatriotic.” We in turn are only too ready to believe those labels. The
current puerile debate over halal and haram is a manifestation of this meaningless
As for the
brute forces, there are the intrusive and repressive laws like the dreadful
Internal Security Act where a minister has absolute power to incarcerate
citizens without trial. Now Malaysia has the National Security Act of 2016 with
even more unchecked powers given to the authorities. Again, note those labels;
those laws are not for our “security” but to keep us subservient.
should ever have unchecked and absolute power. As the Sudanese reformer Mahmoud
Mohamad Taha observed, “No person is perfect enough to be entrusted with the
liberty and dignity of others.” We need effective checks and balances, and
respect for due process. Those are not niceties but necessities. Do not let any
mullah, regardless how impressive his title or big his turban is, tell you
otherwise. You would be a donkey to believe him.
obstacles face our entrapped citizen frog in escaping from underneath his
coconut shell. The first and greatest is to instill in him the realization that
he is indeed trapped, and then to ignite in him the desire to escape; second,
help him escape or topple that shell; and third, assist him to adjust to his
new open world.
obstacle is the toughest. Far too often we lack even the awareness of being
trapped. We remain blissfully ignorant. This awareness is crucial but by itself
is not enough; we must also then have the desire to escape. For that to happen,
we must first be dissatisfied with our current state.
It may seem
perverse but there are those who are content to remain underneath their shell,
readily accepting their fate as Allah’s will–al qadar (divinely destined). Who are we to challenge His design?
is the universal power of inertia; we are comfortable with the status quo.
Besides, it has served our parents, and their parents and even grandparents
well. Again, who are we to alter tradition?
ambition, that would only upset mankind, as Pramoedya noted in his short story,
Djongos dan Babu (Houseboy and Maid).
That family destined themselves to be slaves forever. If God were to pity them,
their thirtieth generation would have descended so low as to be no longer
humans but worms crawling inside the earth, wrote Pramoedya.
shell world of Sabu and Ina (the sibling characters in that story) was tossed
over many times, yet they still sought to be underneath one. The Dutch enslaved
them, but when the colonial world collapsed, instead of liberating themselves
they chose to be enslaved under the Japanese. When the Japanese were defeated,
the pair again chose to be enslaved, this time by the returning Dutch. Happy to
be perpetual slaves they refused to be free with their fellow Indonesians,
deeming themselves “too good” to be with their fellow dirty, brown natives.
replete with examples of external upheavals resulting in the inadvertent
toppling of shells. Trapped underneath we are not even aware up until then of
the external cataclysms. Only when all of a sudden, we find ourselves in a new,
open and much bigger world do we realized that we had been cooped up all along.
destined themselves to be eternal slaves (or accept their fate) like
Pramoedya’s Sabu and Ina would find this new world far from welcoming; in fact,
it would be downright frightening. They would then scramble to find new shells
to hide under, like hermit crabs exposed after the onslaught of a tidal wave.
For others, the external upheaval that toppled their shell would be a welcomed
Toppling Our Coconut Shell
Excerpted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications.