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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.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

On Being A True Malaysian

Malaysiakini.com June 2, 2005
M. Bakri Musa

On Being A True Malaysian

Editorial lead: I am a Malaysian, despite attempts by my critics to label me otherwise. They do so because I reside abroad and thus no longer a “true Malaysian,” Bumiputra or no Bumiputra.

It saddens me to hear at a recent forum someone lamenting that he did not feel like a “true Malaysian” despite the fact that all his grandparents were Malaysian-born. He felt that way presumably because being a non-Bumiputra he was denied special privileges.
I am a Malaysian, despite attempts by my critics to label me otherwise. They do so because I reside abroad and thus no longer a “true Malaysian,” Bumiputra or no Bumiputra.
In my moments of contemplation I do ponder on what exactly is meant to be a “true Malaysian,” and in turn to muse equally on the Malaysian preoccupation with such labels.
One thing I am certain. I cannot be a true Malaysian if I am not true to myself. As a corollary, I refuse to let others define me on their terms.
I will illuminate the questioner’s quandary by first putting special privileges on a broader perspective, and second, by relating my experience in America.
If you have graduated from Stanford, you have successfully breached whatever obstacles the lack of special privileges had imposed on you. Further, the market for your skills and talent is global, transcending special privileges or citizenship formalities.

Measuring Merit

Special privileges will not help you enter Stanford or while you are there. Yes, top universities have special programs for special people (athletic, legacy and affirmative action) but they are meant to augment the traditional criteria of merit. Implicit in this is the recognition that there is no one sure way to measure merit or predict performance.
Top universities could easily fill their freshmen class with perfect SAT and GPA scorers, but they don’t for the same reason. While we can confidently make generally valid conclusions between groups that score above the 90th percentile as compared to those in the 20th percentile, the reliability falls precipitously when comparing the 95th to the 90th percentiles.
The greater (meaning, more difficult) issue is how to recognize and nurture talent. The tragedy is not when we miss picking the doctor’s son who scored the perfect grade, rather in not helping the farmer’s daughter who scored less. The extra help for the latter may well be the much-needed booster to launch her onto her next trajectory. Without that she would simply drop off – a loss for her and her family, as well as for the nation. The doctor’s son will do well regardless, his parents will ensure that.
I am all for restricting special privileges to, well, “less privileged” Bumiputras. Others have suggested that race be removed as the criterion and special privileges be extended to all “less privileged” Malaysians. I am against this. Human nature being what it is, a generation hence the program would surely become even more bloated. I am for restricting, not expanding it.

Special Privileges for those deemed “More Malaysians?”

If being denied special privileges makes one less of a Malaysian, will those who benefited (or presumed to) then be “more Malaysian?” Would that impose a special obligation? No less than former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir had said that those Bumiputras who benefited – to him this means all Bumiputras – from special privileges are ungrateful or worse, traitors if they do not support the UMNO government. That is quite a burden for being “more Malaysian!”
My second perspective is best illustrated by my experience in America. I left Malaysia even before there was a Malaysia. I returned in the late 1970s, alas only for a brief thirty months. The promises vastly exceeded the reality.
In America I have difficulty imagining myself as an immigrant. To me that conjures images of being persecuted at home and landing in America with only the proverbial tattered clothes on my back.

“True” Malaysian versus “True” American

A colleague who is a “true American,” to borrow the language of Malaysians, once remarked, “Bakri, the difference between our grandchildren is that mine will brag their ancestors came on the Mayflower, yours will crow they flew in a 747!”
When I visit places like Atlanta, I get quizzical looks when I respond, “I am from Malaysia!” to their queries. Only when I add, “But I practice in California!” could they reconcile their perception of me.
My children could be considered as first generation Americans, to those who count such series. Their identity crisis arises when filling immigration slips when traveling abroad.
Our younger son aspires to be a pilot; the usual route is to join the air force. The allure of a paid college education and the opportunity to fly those sophisticated machines is very seductive. True to his Malaysian heritage, he succumbed to parental pressure not to do so. Later when the Iraq war broke out, he thanked us profusely.
He had his moments though. Post 9-11, someone with a Muslim name trying to enroll in flying classes is challenging, to put it mildly. On his test flight, his examiner was more interested in my son’s future career rather than in his flying skills. My son knew that this was no mere idle chat. Later, after he performed the technical drills flawlessly, the examiner suggested that my son join the air force!
It took a while before he received his license. It had to be cleared by the FBI, all routine in post 9-11; just that his took longer than usual!
He took it all in stride. Later when he read about Malaysians having difficulty securing visas to study in America, he blamed the idiot Osama Bin Laden for making life difficult for millions of innocent young Muslim males worldwide.
We too had our moments. My wife and I were subjected in the beginning to extra scrutiny at airports, triggered by our “Musa” name. We too took it in stride. For one, those screeners were polite and respectful. For another, no less than Senator Ted Kennedy and former Vice-President Al Gore were also subjected to the same scrutiny. Gore joked that since he had lost weight and had grown a beard the security guards did not recognize him! In contrast, a Malaysian minister threatened to create an international incident when she was searched at an Australian airport.
At no time during all these did my family felt that we were not welcome or that as “new Americans” we ought to know our place! In short we did not feel less of an American; nor would we let others make us feel that way.
Back to the issue of a “true Malaysian:” A young Malaysian-Chinese introduced herself as one of my faithful readers. With ill-disguised pride she apologized for not being able to speak Malay, the daily language of her homeland.
Living in California I have no difficulty picking up Spanish; I pride myself in this. Yet this obviously bright lady who actually studied Malay in school does not speak our national language!
The answers to such purportedly profound questions as who is a Malaysian often rest on such simple premises.


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