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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.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Malay Myth Versus The Malay Problem

The Malay Myth Versus The Malay Problem


The Malay dilemma or “problem” has occupied the thoughts of many of our luminaries, from Munshi Abdullah through Pendita Za’aba in the past to today’s Ungku Aziz and Mahathir Mohamad.

            There are others less well known but no less passionate in their thinking. Those eminent personalities aside, there is also no shortage of commentators on what ails our community. Spend a few minutes at any warong kopi and one would be inundated with strong views and opinions. Patronize the many Starbucks in the uncomfortably chilled shopping centers of Kuala Lumpur and you would hear many equally opinionated and pontificating views.

            For the young for whom the warong kopi is not their cup of tea (or coffee) and Starbucks is beyond their pocket’s reach, the social media, specifically blogs, Twitter, and Facebook are where they congregate. While lapses in logic, etiquette, and grammar are tolerated and easily smoothed over in face-to-face conversations, they are not so in written communications either in the print world or cyberspace. Those lapses can be very distracting at the minimum. That unfortunately is the price of those ubiquitous and instantaneous social media.

            In the normal circumstance when one needs a more substantive treatment of a subject, the best recourse would be to peruse the academic literature. If one were to do that in Malaysia, be prepared to be dismayed. With few exceptions (and I have liberally used their materials) most of what are written locally, especially in recent years, lack intellectual depth and scholarly rigor. Worse, they often spout the political line, and one is left wondering whether they are genuine scholars or political hacks cloaked in academic garb.

            This has not always been the case. There was a time not too long ago when our universities produced their share of bona fide scholarship and heavyweight scholars. Earlier I referred to Ungku Aziz, a shining example of a free mind. Then there was the late Ishak Shaari. Although he graduated (with honors) from the London School of Economics, his doctorate was, significantly enough, from our local University of Malaya at a time when it was under the leadership of Ungku Aziz. This again reflected the caliber of that institution and its leadership at the time.

            Of interest, I first came across Ishak Shaari’s article not in a scholarly journal but in one of those throw-away Malay magazines (Mastika). He was one of the first and few economists, foreign or local, to sound the alarm on the shoddy foundation upon which the Malaysian economy was based. This was at the time when the world, including the World Bank and the IMF, could spare no superlatives in praising our economic managers and their policies. Only a few years later in 1997, Ishak was proven right, very right.

            It also says something about those Malay periodicals then that they carried articles on substantive topics written by local heavyweights. Today’s magazines are heavy into jinns, celebrities, and sex scandals.

            The Malaysian academia has also changed substantially in many other ways too, and for the worse. At the risk of sounding anti-native or being accused of adoring everything foreign, today most of what is useful and insightful about Malaysia is written by foreign scholars. There is nothing wrong with that. The intellectual world, like others, is now global; one cannot afford to be insular.

            Because of their limited English language skills, the intellectual horizon of today’s local scholars is necessarily limited. If that is not crippling enough, there are the perennial budget constraints, and with that, limited library facilities, research funding, and opportunities to attend international conferences. For a scholar, those are major handicaps.

            To be fair but nonetheless a serious concern, this sorry decline of our universities is part and parcel of the overall decline in all our institutions. Blaming our scholars alone would unnecessarily target them when it is the whole system that has become rotten.

            Ultimately the solution lies in the political arena. It is here that my disappointment is the greatest. One cannot help but be dismayed at the level of sophistication and comprehension displayed by Malay political players. The two main Malay political parties–UMNO and PAS–are led respectively by Najib, consumed with his survival, and Hadi, his conspicuous piety could not hide his burning ambition for a ministerial appointment while obsessed with ensuring that he and his followers end up in heaven. Meanwhile the Malay masses suffer hell on earth while Malay leaders succeed only in creating myths that betray their ignorance.

            The American linguist Noam Chomsky once observed, “Our ignorance can be divided into problems and mysteries. When we face a problem, we may not know its solution, but we have insight, increasing knowledge, and an inkling of what we are looking for. When we face a mystery, however, we can only stare in wonder and bewilderment, not knowing what an explanation would even look like.”

            In their ignorance, Malay leaders have succeeded in creating many myths. They and us in turn have believed in those myths.

Next:  The Bedeviling Malay Hantus


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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