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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.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Putting The Malay Dilemma In Perspective

Putting The Malay Dilemma in Perspective


Wealth converts a strange land into homeland, and poverty turns a native place into a strange land.

Saidina Ali, RA, Nahj ul Balagha (Peak of Eloquence)


Malays are inured to the litany of our problems, and to our leaders’ endless sloganeering to what they presume to be the answer. We too respond in the same predictable manner each time a slogan is hollered. Our leaders would chant, Melayu Baru! (New Malay!) and we would echo likewise, and with greater fervor. Then came Bahasa Jiwa Bangsa (Language the soul of a nation), and we would repeat the mantra with even greater lust. The latest is Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony), and being the latest, our responses are even louder and shriller. We could hardly contain our enthusiasm, chomping at the bit to do battle for its cause.
At the December 2011 UMNO General Assembly, the delegates were whooping it up over Ketuanan Melayu. They could not contain their frenzy, cheered on by their leaders. To me the atmosphere was less being ready to do battle for a great cause, more like a service in a Black Southern Church where the exuberance of the congregants’ “Hallelujahs!” were exceeded only by their bodily gyrations. Women’s Minister Sharizat Jalil was aggressively rolling up her sleeves as if readying herself for a mano-a-mano with the Pakatan leader. Whether the enthusiasm reflected a deeper appreciation of the message or merely an expression of relief that the service was finally over was hard to say.

            My purpose in recasting these all-too-familiar challenges in a different light is not to elicit an “Amen!” or “Say it again, brother!” type of responses rather a more cerebral “Let me ponder that!” or, “That’s a different way of looking at the problem!”

            Whenever the “Malay problem” is discussed, whether at the highest levels in the hallowed halls of Putrajaya or by the Pak Wans at the more plebian warong kopi (coffee stalls) of Kota Baru, the “analyses” would never venture far beyond the dredging up and resurrecting of old ugly stereotypes.

            The only difference between the lofty self-glorifying participants at Putrajaya versus the earthy warong kopi patrons would be their language. The official report would be elaborately bound and released with great fanfare, with all the highly-paid consultants and participants in attendance. It would also bore the imprimatur of the World Bank or some such prestigious international authority, and carry the names of distinguished foreign professors or partners of elite consultancy firms that had been hired at great costs to produce the report.

            A few months later those expensively paid reports would be all but forgotten, lost in the belly of the bureaucracy, just as the pretentious pronouncements of Pak Wan would be lost in the heavy haze of his cheap kretek smoke. The only difference would be in the half-life or decay rate, weeks or months at most for the official report versus minutes with Pak Wan’s.

            A policy based on faulty assumptions will remain so no matter how elegantly written or impressive its authors’ titles. And when those policies fail, as inevitably they would, the effect would be to further reinforce prevailing ugly stereotypes, making subsequent attempts at solving the problem that much more difficult. This is quite apart from the wasted efforts and resources, as well as the accompanying lost opportunity.

            “We have tried everything,” earnest leaders like Najib and Mahathir would cry, literally, “but Malays just refuse to respond!” The implication is that there is nothing wrong with those policies or their brilliant authors, only that we Malays are just too lazy or too dependent on the government.

            Predictably those deliberations at Putrajaya or Pak Wan’s warong kopi would crystallize around two polar themes. On one side would be those who conveniently and confidently assert that there is nothing wrong with us, rather the fault is with the evil outside world intent on doing us in, the old and recurring “us” versus “them” argument.

            At the other end would be those who could find nothing right with us. To them we are our own problem; the enemy is us. If it is not our culture, religion or upbringing, then it must be our inner being, our nature or genes, as Mahathir asserted in his The Malay Dilemma.

            The two viewpoints may be poles apart in their basic assumptions, but they share one underlying commonality. They view Malays essentially as victims; the first seeing us as victims of the merciless outsiders – the “them” – while the second reduces us as invalids, the tragic victims of our own inadequacies, real or perceived.

            Some resort to both arguments. In his The Malay Dilemma, citizen Mahathir faulted us; during the 1997 economic crisis, Prime Minister Mahathir blamed “them” – the neo colonialist, Jewish financiers, and currency traders. That is definitely one way to ensure that you win the argument one-way or the other!

            In the past, the cruel “them” would be the colonialists. If only they had stayed out of our world, then we would not today be burdened with the current dangerous race problems. We also would not have to work so hard to keep up with those pesky, hungry and diligent immigrants. We would then be able to enjoy our tropical nirvana while being serenaded by dondang sayang.

            Colonialism is now long gone but its ghost is still being invoked every so often, and not just by the less informed. With the old devil gone, the sophisticated have invented new players to fill the void of the now long-gone imagined enemies.

            Enter the neo-colonialist. This modern variant is even more virulent as it is intent on colonizing us mentally as well. Worse, those who fall victims to this new spell do not even realize that they are being colonized. Such are the awesome powers of these neo-colonialists.

            If only these neo-colonialists – the cabal of evil international financiers and currency traders with their foreign ideology of capitalism – would leave us alone, we would not be burdened with the economic crisis of 1997 and we would still have our beloved Bank Bumiputra. Left unsaid, what about its massive portfolios of dud loans?

            If it is not the neo-colonialists and their destructive capitalist ideology, then there would not be those hordes of hungry immigrants, the pendatangs. Their obsession for hard work, habits handed down from their ancestors who came from lands less blessed and forgiving, made it difficult for us to keep up with them while enjoying our privileged lifestyle. Well, at least in that regards we are no different from the Americans, Australians, and Europeans. They too complain of these pesky and hardworking immigrants from strange lands bringing with them their equally strange cultures and willingness for hard work.

            Never mind that now we have been in charge of our destiny for well over half a century, with plenty of time to correct whatever problems those colonialists had left us with. However, instead of doing that and in a twist of irony, we have aped their ways. We have taken them further. While those colonialists would jail only a few hardened rabble-rousers, we have jailed anyone who dared disagree with us. At least those colonialists did not incarcerate their own kind; we do.

            Like the colonialists, we too have brought in hordes of a new breed of pendatangs, this time not to work in the tin mines or rubber estates but as maids, food servers, odd-job laborers, and “sex workers.” What new social and cultural problems will they create?

Next:  The Enemy Is Us – The Self-Blamers


Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Malay Dilemma Revisited. Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia. Updated Edition 2017

 
 
The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics In Modern Malaysia - Updated Edition
 
 
 
List Price: $19.90  (April 2017)
6" x 9" (15.24 x 22.86 cm) 
Black & White on Cream paper
408 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1543242423 (CreateSpace-Assigned) 
ISBN-10: 1543242421 
LCCN: 2017903018 
BISAC: Political Science / Public Affairs & Administration
 
Few countries today have culturally or ethnically homogenous populations, the consequence of colonization, globalization, and mass migrations. Thus, the Malaysian dilemma of socioeconomic and other inequities paralleling racial and cultural divisions has global relevance as it also burdens many nations.  
 
Malaysia’s basic instrument in ameliorating these horizontal (between groups) inequities has been its New Economic Policy (NEP). Its core mechanism being preferential socio-economic and other initiatives favoring indigenous Malays and other non-immigrant minorities, as well as massive state interventions in the marketplace. In place since 1970 in the aftermath of the deadly 1969 race riots, NEP has been continuously “strengthened,” meaning, ever increasing resources expended and preferences being imposed with greater assertiveness. 
 
Malaysia succeeded to some degree in reducing her earlier inequities and in the process created a sizeable Malay middle class. There was however, a steep price. Apart from the marketplace distortions and consequent drag on the economy, those earlier horizontal inequities are now replaced by the more destabilizing vertical variety. NEP also bred a rentier- economy mindset among Malays and other recipient communities. Those preferences now impair rather than enhance the recipents' (in particular Malay) competitiveness, the universal law of unintended consequences being operative. 
 
Initiated by Prime Minister Razak in 1970, his successor, Mahathir, raised NEP to a much more aggressive level, only to have that initiative today corrupted and degraded by, ironically, Tun Razak’s son, current Prime Minister Najib. By July 2016, the US Department of Justice alleges that “Malaysian Official 1” (aka Najib) illicitly siphoned over US$3.5 Billion from a government-linked corporation, 1MDB. Corruption on such a gargantuan scale was the predictable and inevitable consequence of Malaysia’s New Economic Policy and state interventions in the marketplace.  
 
Ths book chronicles Mahathir’s and Najib’s perversion of a once noble endeavor. Najib now adds another volatile mix. Desperate to hang on to power, he adds religious fanaticism to his already corrosive corruption and destructive incomptence. He now cavorts with extremist Islamists, threatening and undermining the nation’s still fragile race dynamics. Malaysia is today still burdened and blighted by Najib’s inept, corrupt, and chauvinistic leadership, with no end in sight. This would inevitably undermone the current fragile but still peaceful racial equilibrium in the country. 
 
Instead of arbitrarily-picked numbers and targets, Malaysia should focus on strengthening Malay competitiveness through enhancing our human and social capitals. Modernizing the education system to emphasize the sciences, mathematics, English fluency, and technical training would address the first. Curtailing royal institutions and other vestiges of feudalism, as well as the regressive form of religion as propagated by the state, would develop the second. It is difficult to wean Malays off the special privilege narcotic when the sultans are frolicking at the top of the heap. 
 
Beyond chronicling the failures of both the Najib and Mahathir Administrations, the author offers these alternative strategies for enhancing Malay competitiveness. Apart from improving the quality of our human and social capital through modern education and responsive institutions, the author advocates removing or at least toning down the stifling influence of official religion.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Sorry Shape of the Malaysian Ship of State


The Sorry Shape of the Malaysian Ship of State
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com


A nation is like a boat on a river. Face the craft in the wrong direction and it would end up downstream in the marshy delta in short order, with minimal or no effort. It would languish there in the mud, at the mercy of the tides and floods. Face your boat sideways to head for the comfort of the nearby shore and you risk being broadsided by the current. Even if your boat were to face upstream, you could still end up downstream, albeit more slowly, for lack of paddling.

By facing our boat upstream and paddling hard, Malaysians have achieved much and traversed many superior fishing grounds as well as enjoyed numerous beautiful sights. Malaysians have also met and mingled with many upstream people, folks used to and comfortable in waters that are fresh, cool, and clean. Now we too aspire for that; we too want the waters around us to be free of the jetsam and flotsam. However, we can only get that by going upstream.

In the past with our preoccupation with moving our craft upstream we have forgotten the elementary caution of keeping it steady. The faster we paddle, the more we need to do so lest we risk capsizing our craft. Further, the steadier and more streamlined our craft is, the faster we would progress. If we rock our boat we have to expend the extra effort to maintain its stability and speed. Eddies and other turbulences impede the flow as well as jeopardize our craft’s stability; likewise, if our hull were encrusted with barnacles.

Malaysia was rudely reminded of this grim reality back in 1969. Then the ship of state was moving forward quite steadily, but not fast enough to the satisfaction of some. Those dissatisfied began rocking the craft instead of helping paddle it forward faster. The consequence was disastrous; the nation was torn asunder by a vicious race riot. No sane Malaysian would want to repeat that experience.

Today the ship of state that is Malaysia is not moving upstream as fast as we were used to or are potentially capable of. Malaysians are rightly dissatisfied. This frustration is made more acute when we see neighboring ships that were once by our side or way in our rear now fast overtaking us.

Our collective response thus far to this unhappy turn of events is anything but inspiring. It is downright frightening, echoing with frightening eeriness what we did during that dark period leading to 1969. Now, as then, we are preoccupied with who gets to steer, be on the top deck, and to sit at the captain’s table. We are busy rearranging the deck chairs and not paying attention to where we are headed. The lookout person has abandoned his post and is busy lobbying for the best spot on deck. Little did he realize that when the ship is broadsided by a rogue wave, even the best spot would be swamped.

All on board are busy looking inwards, not to study and solve the problem but to blame each other, that is, when they are not busy elbowing each other to get the choicest spot. I wonder when the Titanic was listing dangerously whether those pampered guests in the upper deck were still frenetically trying to secure dinner invitations from their captain.

In a boat you are either help, or by default, load; there is no in-between. Likewise in society; you are either an asset or liability, part of the solution or part of the problem, contributor to or dependent on the state. Ballast is necessary for stability even though it slows down the craft. One could argue that the sultans are a heavy unnecessary load (financially and in many other ways) thus slowing our nation-boat, they serve as a necessary ballast to keep the ship of state stable. However, it is worth reminding that ballast in a ship is put at its lowest point to effect maximal stability. If you put the ballast on deck or way high up, you invite instability.

In a democratic ship of state, all on board have a say on who gets to be skipper, be in the upper deck, or even be on board. To the extent that the Malaysian ship of state is now facing the wrong direction, being skippered by a less-than-competent captain, heavily weighed down by freeloaders, and slowed down by encrusting barnacles, citizens have only themselves to blame.

There are only two options for Malaysians. One is to jump ship. That option is available to only a select few, those fortunate to have the skills needed by the other faster and more gleaming ships. For the rest, jumping from one slow, leaky, and rat-infested craft to another is no progress, quite apart from the risks involved. Even those fortunate enough to land on a sleeker ship, there is no guarantee that they would be on the same deck level; far too often they would be consigned below deck. Only the lucky few would have upgraded cabins in their new ship. Even for those fortunate few, the thoughts and memories of those they leave behind cannot help but diminish the pleasure of their upgraded status.

For the vast majority, the more sensible solution would be to work at getting their ship in Bristol condition, facing the right direction, and being skippered by a competent captain. We cannot achieve those goals if we remain insular or eye each other with suspicion. Collectively we have to scan the wide horizon, study the other ships, and read the waves below. We have to discern the clouds as well as feel the wind, its force and direction. Most importantly, we have to exercise our best judgment in picking our captain and insist that he picks a competent crew.

Then after having done our due diligence, even if we do not agree on the final destination chosen by our skipper, at least we could enjoy the sail. At the very least our journey would be safer; we would not likely be stranded on a dangerous reef or be swamped by a rogue wave. Who knows, while we may not share the same final port of call, there may be many along the way that we would like to visit together.

That is what an unshackled mind could do for us. A free mind would give us the serenity to accept things that we cannot change, the courage to change things that we can, and the wisdom to know the difference, to quote Neibuhr’s serenity prayer.

Malaysia achieved political independence more than half a century ago, but mentally Malaysians are still very much entrapped. The battle cry for this new century should be, “Merdeka Minda Melayu!” (Liberate the Malay Mind!), and we should pursue this noble goal with the same vigor, passion, and determination as our forefathers did with Merdeka Tanah Melayu.

Today Malaysia is in disarray; its skipper corrupt, incompetent, and far from being diligent; his crew tired, distracted and indifferent. The ship of state is headed in the wrong direction, and there are many shoals and reefs ahead. The wind is building up and the water increasingly choppy. The wakes of overtaking ships are battering us. Worse, those ships were once way behind us. We are being shackled by needlessly intrusive and abusive rules that were meant for a different era when the ship was skippered by other than our own people. Now our own leaders are exploiting those rules to further their own nefarious needs. On deck, the ballast is rising to the top, threatening our stability.

We fail to appreciate these cruel realities because our minds are trapped into thinking otherwise; hence my call for Merdeka Minda Melayu. We have to have a free mind to appreciate the stark realities we are under and not let our leaders delude us into thinking otherwise. We need a free mind to work ourselves out from under these myriad burdens lest we condemn ourselves and future generations along the same perilous course that has led us to where we are today.

A free mind cannot be willed upon; there is no magic wand out there. We have to strive hard – very hard – at liberating our minds, just as hard, if not more so, as we did in liberating our native land. It is a worthy and noble pursuit; a closed mind is the worst prison.

We should disabuse ourselves of the false comfort of life underneath the coconut shell. That world with its coziness, familiarity and predictability is no heaven; it is in fact a prison, and a very cruel one at that. That shell is no protector, it is an oppressor. It prevents us, as Allah’s vice-regents in this temporal world, from enjoying His Many Blessings that is this vast universe with all its beauty, bounty and diversity. Remaining underneath the coconut shell means we are not appreciative of Allah’s gift. And that would the greatest show of disrespect.

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Merdeka Minda Melayu!

Merdeka Minda Melayu!
(Liberate The Malay Mind!)
M. Bakri Musa


Merdeka Tanah Melayu! “Freedom for the Malay Land!”

            That was our rallying cry in the first half of the last century. That culminated in our nation’s independence from British colonial rule in 1957. With independence came the freedom to chart our own course. Through that precious gift, we achieved much. We can be proud of having crossed numerous milestones and accomplished many goals, some of which we would not have even dared aspire to had we remained under colonial rule. Such are the promises and rewards of freedom.

            By no means were those goals and rewards assured. Today, many in Asia and Africa yearn for what they consider (and with valid reasons) to be their good old days under colonialism. To them, independence became (and continues to mean) not freedom to pursue their dreams but brutal lawlessness and endless nightmares. To them, merdeka is overrated.

            Malaysians need to be reminded of this harsh reality every so often, not to gloat but as a warning that things could easily have gone the other way for the nation. Malaysia could have been another Rwanda or Sri Lanka, wrecked with deadly sectarian strife. Those countries have been independent too, some for longer periods than Malaysia, and each fearlessly proud of their freedom. Increasingly however, their pride is becoming hollow.

            The colonials oppressed us socially, culturally and for more than a few, also physically and mentally. Our culture was denigrated and our faith pushed aside. Our language was belittled if not ignored while our brave leaders who dared speak out were imprisoned or banished. The colonialists were interested only in exploiting our land, while our ways and society fascinated only their linguists and anthropologists, quite apart from their eccentrics with their voyeuristic curiosity for things exotic. Despite all that we survived. Indeed, we went beyond; we ultimately prevailed and became independent.

            Today we may be free from colonial rule but we have willingly let ourselves be entrapped mentally, this time by forces of our own making. We have let our culture be our oppressor, and we are imprisoned by our religion. Our chauvinistic pride in our language traps us from learning new ones, thus handicapping us in this global age. Worse, by willfully wrapping ourselves in our national language we have also consciously imprisoned our minds.

            The banality of our leaders’ corruption is now beyond our rage. When they are not engrossed in enriching themselves at our expense, they are busy degrading us. They belittle us at every opportunity for not measuring up to the standards they have set for us. They however, conveniently disregard or are otherwise contemptuous of those standards and values. Conditioned by the dictates of our culture, we remain loyal to them.

            If those irritants are not enough, we are also being strangled by the rigidity, crudity and intrusiveness of our laws; laws that are of our own making, or more correctly that which our leaders have created and imposed upon us. As for our current system of educating our young, far from liberating those precious young minds, our schools and universities actively entrap them.

            Then there is the economy. Malaysia is rich with abundant natural resources and spared nature’s many calamities. Yet Malays are increasingly marginalized. All the socio-economic indices are not in our favor; worse, they are deteriorating with alarming rapidity.

            There was a time when we were active in trade and commerce. That was how Islam came to us. Malacca, then the center of our civilization, was a blossoming entrepôt port, located in the protected waters in the path of the prevailing trade winds. Today, rent-seekers, pseudo-entrepreneurs, and the various government-linked companies (GLCs) define our “engagement” in commerce. Our capitalists are not the genuine variety, rather what Yoshihara Kunio termed as “ersatz capitalists.” We have our own term, Ali Baba “businessmen.” The quotation marks are unnecessary as that expression is now a permanent part of our lexicon.

            We are hooked on special privileges like drug addicts their illicit fixes; we have been indoctrinated to believe that our very survival depends on them. We fail to sense that these privileges are but burdens impeding our very progress and dragging us down. Instead we have been programmed to view them as floaters without which we would have long ago been underwater. Our leaders have convinced us, and in turn themselves of this myth; hence we clamor for more privileges and ever-increasing “special rights!” Our struggle then focuses solely on that:  achieving more and ever generous privileges, subsidies and bailouts.

            Those are the perceptions we have of the world and of ourselves. We plan our actions and react to unfolding events based on those views. That is the self-narrative we have crafted. We imagine our future based on that, and we do not like that future at all. Our fear of it makes us hold on even more tightly to what we have today, and then in a mistaken belief that our very survival depends on those privileges, we demand even more. And the destructive downward spiral accelerates until we are thrown into an uncontrollable vortex.

            Things need not have to be that way. We cannot change the current reality; those barnacles on our society’s hull are as obvious to us as to others. We can however, change our perception. Once we have done that, we will begin to see the world as others do. We can then appreciate what had been obvious to others all along, that is, those barnacles on our vessels are not keeping us afloat. Far from that; they effect a heavy drag. Once we realize that we can then begin to aggressively get rid of them as they have now become tightly encrusted upon and fast making themselves a part of us.

            We have to remove our blinders so we can view reality under varying shades and angles of light. Only then could we see the big elephant in the room in its entirety, and not be trapped by the individual assessments of blind leaders groping its various parts. Then we could appreciate and understand the beast in all its beauty, totality, and yes, complexity. There will be disquieting disequilibrium initially as old certitudes get mercilessly demolished. That could be humiliating, and humility is a very good place to start the learning process. Who knows, with greater understanding we might even be able to tame the elephant and make it work for us by using its might to do the heavy lifting.

            A free mind is a prerequisite for us to see the world as it is and not as what we may imagine it to be or what others tell us it is. Staying the course would condemn us and future generations to the roles others have assigned for us, and we would be perpetually at their mercy. Such a destiny and fate should haunt us; hence the need to be obsessed with liberating our minds. Sans a free mind, we condemn ourselves and future generations to be Pramoedya’s Sabu and Ina.


Adapted from the Aauhtor's book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications, PJ 2013