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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.

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