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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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.

Friday, June 17, 2005

True Malaysians: Readers' Responses

On Being A True Malaysian: Readers’ Responses

Emotional Ties In Being A True Malaysian

(Reprinted from Malaysiakini.com June 10, 2005)

M Bakri Musa’s article “On being a true Malaysian suggests that being a true Malaysian often rests on the premise that one speaks Bahasa Malaysia. This is because BM is the national language. One way to counter Bakri’s conclusion would be to ask another question: If Islam were declared as the national religion of Malaysia, would it mean that non-Muslims are non-Malaysians? Isn’t Bakri doing the very thing that he refuses others to do unto him, that is, defining the term ‘true Malaysian’ on his own terms?

Anyway, the subject reminds me of another conversation that I had with my best friend’s father-in-law on his visit to the US from Macedonia. He asked me if I considered myself a Chinese or a Malaysian. I told him, in an international badminton match between China and Malaysia, I would support the Malaysian team. If the match were between China and any other country, I would support the Chinese team.

If the match were between a Chinese-Malaysian and a Malay-Malaysian, I would support both. Remember, being a badminton fan I would not fail to admire the one who has the better skill and dedication.

I believe being a true Malaysian lies in one’s emotional ties. It is not about patriotism or nationalism but a fundamental human connection with the place that one was born and raised in.

It is this invincible connection between me and Malaysia that makes me a Malaysian. I may have been living in the US for over 12 years now, but my emotional umbilical cord is still connected to Malaysia.

Ming Hoe


True Malaysian not born, but made

(Reprinted form Malaysiakini.com June 10, 2005)

Since the notion of a true Malaysian as M Bakri Musa demonstrates may be more ethereal than physical, I would like to think that a true Malaysian is one who is true to Malaysia, and who ultimately works in the interests of all its people and for the national good.

I suppose this narrow ideal would differentiate between a Malaysian and a true Malaysian. It is easy to become a Malaysian, as anecdotal evidences of illegal Indonesians with acquired Malaysian Mykads and passports would attest.

But being a true Malaysian, now that is a different story. I for one would consider Dr Edmund Terence Gomez a true Malaysian, especially after reading Jeffrey Henderson's letter. Here is a man courted by the world but who returned to serve his country only to get a raw deal in the end, so the media reports tell us.

His critics may disown him as a true Malaysian, but I think Bakri Musa himself will always be one despite being an absentee ‘son of the soil’. But is physical presence so important in this age of technological wonders where the Internet can diminish the physical tyranny of distances?

Someone like Musa will always be a true Malaysian because he has the country’s best interest at heart. He cares enough for his country to contribute his ideas. Others like him also contribute to the country’s national conscience.

If physical presence is a prerequisite for being considered a true Malaysian, as Musa’s critics understand the term, then many Malaysians should be excluded. They include our ambassadors, overseas students, business people, scientists, sportspersons, public servants on study tours, and many more who need to be absent from the country for valid reasons.

Unlike many countries, Malaysia does not recognize dual citizenship. Does this make these dual citizens any less patriotic as far as their countries of birth are concerned? Many wealthy, influential, and privileged Malaysians have houses overseas and spend considerable time away from Malaysia. Are they any less of a Malaysian? I do not think so.

They all enrich the fabric of a multi-cultural Malaysia, and no one can take away their identity, which over the years may have become more complex, but essentially remain Malaysian.

Today, overseas Malaysians are being wooed to return, to help accelerate the country’s progress. But in this great land of contrasts, and I should add, glaring contradictions, events can at times be baffling. On one hand they woo, on the other they shoo away some of our best, as demonstrated by the Gomez debacle.

A true Malaysian is one who is unmistakably patriotic, incorruptible whether in high or low office, and who puts the interest of his community and country first before self, regardless of his race, religion or social rank. He or she knows that Merdeka means striving hard to make the country successful so that every Malaysian will enjoy the fruits of freedom and prosperity.

A true Malaysian is not born but made, shaped by conviction borne out of the constant struggle against the odds and a genuine concern for his or her homeland and its diverse people. His or her religious beliefs unite, not divide the nation, for true religion always inspires one to serve others even if at times it means putting their interests above one’s own.

No true Malaysian would trample on the backs of the weak, abuse his or her position for power, and engage in corrupt and questionable practices. True Malaysians would not destroy the environment for short-term monetary gains.

‘Walking the talk’ and the old-fashioned ‘practicing what you preach’ are all clichés. It is vital for Pak Lah and his government to match their words with strong and decisive actions while they still have the people’s support.

True Malaysians everywhere will surely join him in this battle.

Steve Oh


Dear Dr. Bakri:

I thank you for sharing your insight on the “true Malaysian.” You have the double blessing of being a Malaysian and living in another land. That offers you the rare privilege to interpret your identity with great honesty. It is also true that different interpretations of who we truly are depend very much on our own experiences – both joy and grief – in interacting with fellow Malaysians and non-Malaysians, and the social environment we spend our lives in. Through it, our perceptions become colored for better or worse in infinite shades; hence our differences in opinions and labels. But let there be differences that reveal and teach, not to disparage or belittle. Many “truths” are valid, but momentarily within the time capsule of our experience.

As a Malaysian Chinese I am often ambivalent over my own identity, and I know many are in the same situation. The only thing Chinese about me is my name (which I try to camouflage with a Western first name), my slit eyes (which I try to camouflage with heavy eye make-up), the dialect I speak (one or two) which is not my natural expression. For the shame of me I cannot read Chinese, and will not be able to recognize my name even if it were lighted up in neon lights. Of this I am definitely not proud (in case you disparage me as with the Chinese girl who cannot speak our national language). I think in English and can only express myself meaningfully in English. It is the truth that I have a problem in identifying myself as a Chinese.

My great escape is to label myself a Malaysian (true or otherwise). But this leads to a greater ambivalence. At times, I do feel disenfranchised in my own land (if you will permit me to claim that). To me, it is not so much the lack of privileges as the lack of a meaningful recognition beyond a population statistic and touristy blurbs touting our multiracial culture. Commendable achievements by non-Bumiputras are mostly ignored or downplayed in contrast to deliberate publicity to those achieved by Bumiputras. Non-Bumiputras are here, but they are treated as if they do not really matter.

They are constantly reminded in ways both direct and subtle that they do not belong, and tolerated only as “orang asing,” not much different from the tourists.

God gives us a choice in everything. We can always choose to think the better or worse of others, and positive or negative actions and reactions will follow accordingly. I am very heartened to hear about your son’s fantastic opportunity, both because he is a Malaysian and a Muslim. In spite of the odds against him, I clearly see that he was given a chance by someone from the franchised authority who chose not to be defensive but to believe in the positive potential in him. And that is all non-Bumiputras ask for in Malaysia. They are not asking that Bumiputras be deprived of their special privileges; they only ask for the opportunity to help build the nation with their talent.

At the end of the day, like you, I too will have to deal with my own identity. Do I choose to lament my disenfranchised state and allow others to define me as such on their terms, or do I pick myself up and affirm that this is my land of flowing with milk and honey that has taken care of me and my family well over the last two generations? I hope the future will even be brighter. In return, my calling is to make Malaysia better for all Malaysians in whatever way I can. And that is my simple premise.

Take care of that Malaysian heart of yours,




[Letters are arranged from the most recent]

Dear HC:

Ethnicity and religion are here to stay, but we have to find ways and means to seek common grounds for unity, and use diversity as our strength. To me nothing is more damaging and dangerous than this “us” versus “them” mindset, and using religion or any other means for differentiation. That benefits no one in Malaysia, except the politicians (in the short term to get elected and stay in power).

I often look back nostalgically to those days in 1950s and 1960s when I used to go, eat and sleep in the homes of my Chinese and Indian friends without fear of being “contaminated.” Their parents were always sensitive that I was a Muslim; they bought halal chicken and meat, and never cooked and served pork when I was their guest. I did not have to proclaim, “I am a Muslim,” as they understood and respected who I was.

My friends also used to stay at my place. There was plenty of mutual understanding and tolerance. We studied together, exchanged notes and had discussions. But my friends and I also competed in school, to be the best in our studies and in sports. We readily acknowledged who among us emerged as the champions.

Today we seem to be divided because wittingly or unwittingly, religion has become part of national politics. The British used our ethnicity to isolate us, under their “Divide and Rule” strategy, and kept us as separate communities with different economic functions. After 1969, Tun Razak emphasized national unity by making the eliminating the identification of race with economic function as one of the objectives of the NEP. Today, Malays are in business just as the Chinese and Indians. Of course, more work needs to be done to create a viable Bumiputra Industrial and Commercial Community, especially after the 1997-1998 economic crisis.

In the 1980s, the Malays were caught in the global resurgence of Islam, precipitated by the Iranian Revolution (1979). Islam became part of our politics, for which UMNO (Anwar Ibrahim in particular) and PAS ought to bear some responsibility. The MCA, MIC and other parties in the Barisan coalition were also responsible, for their apathy permitted these Islamists to exert major influence in our politics. Now we are in the era of contentious politics. That worries me a lot.

So I am wondering whether we have become entrapped by the “British trick” except we are using religion (since in the case of the Malays, Islam is synonymous with Malayness) to keep us apart. We should get back to Rukun Negara principles. Our education system should seek to promote integration, not assimilation). We need a sense of common destiny. This is vital.

I could be entirely wrong in my analysis. I welcome your take.

Best regards,

Din Merican


Hey friends (S, HC, O and S in particular):

I agree that the best way for us to have an informed discussion is to avoid making broad, unsubstantiated claims. As we all share a common goal in finding solutions to the pressing and contentious issues in Malaysia, let us proceed in a manner that seeks to promote better understanding of the issues without unnecessarily speculating.

While personal anecdotes and experiences might be helpful, we should be careful not to extrapolate and extend them to explain issues in their entirety.

> At present, it appears that NEP has not met its goals.

> If you set a policy based on some premises, you need to seriously

> reevaluate if after 30+ years, it hasn't produced the results you

> envisioned.

As you mentioned, the twin prongs of the NEP were to reduce poverty and to eliminate the identification of race with economic function. We cannot deny that considerable progress has been made in terms of the second objective (compare the figures in 1957-1970 and 1970-2000):

Clerical & related occupations: 1970 2000

Malays 35.4% 56.8%

Chinese 45.9% 32.9%

Administrative and managerial occupations

Malays 24.1% 37%

Chinese 62.9% 52.3%

Another way of looking at employment shifts is to look at the proportion of Malays in various sectors. In 1970, 62.3% of Malays were involved in agriculture; in 2000, only 21.5%.

In terms of the first objective, progress has been made too (although some might argue that poverty levels were reduced because of economic growth rather than state policies, while others might dispute the poverty measurement method). The poverty level in 1970 was 49.3%; 1990, 7.5%; 2002, 5.1%.

We should perhaps focus on some of the negative consequences of NEP (rise in intra-ethnic disparities as opposed to inter-ethnic disparities, and the growing sense of entitlement) rather than the successes of the policy in achieving its stated objectives.

As for private sector employment, employers’ hiring standards are not based on qualifications alone. Chinese are often overrepresented in SMALLER companies because these companies frequently employ family members or recruit new trainees through informal channels on the basis of kinship. In certain companies, the socialization process is easier when workers of the same ethnic group are recruited, hence reinforcing the pattern of ethnic-based employment. In certain industries, knowledge of Mandarin and Chinese dialects is required to communicate with suppliers and clients, and educational qualifications are of less importance.

I do not necessarily believe, for the reasons mentioned above, that a fair national policy would reduce this clannishness. Historical and cultural barriers (we can thank the British) have created ethnically segmented markets that persist even as gaps in educational qualifications between ethnic groups are reduced.

Such sweeping generalizations as private sector employment being dominated by non-Bumiputra are ill-advised. Employment policies of LARGER non-Bumi corporations are monitored by the authorities and there are annual reports that have to be submitted detailing the ethnic composition of the workforce. Due to pragmatic considerations, positions at ALL levels have increasingly been filled by Malays over the years. It might interest you that in the finance industry for example, pressure from the central bank to increase Bumi employment at every level led to a competition for competent Bumi top management that “Bumiputera senior managers and technical professionals could command an economic rent of 20 to 50 per cent because of the short-term supply shortage” (Birks and Hamzah, 1988). This implies that the lack of Bumis at higher level positions is not due solely to discriminatory policies, which brings me to my next point, the claim that Malays do not secure significant professional positions in non-Bumi companies.

This can partly be explained by company policies where upward mobility is largely internal. In order to recoup the costs of training, companies prefer to limit hiring at mid-level positions and then allow employees to rise through the ranks. This strategy also helps prevent high turnover rates that could be to the company’s detriment.

A considerable number of Malays have only started to acquire industry skills recently (previously they were content with public sector employment due to the expansion of that sector in the 70s and early 80s – from 22 state-owned enterprises in 1960 to 1014 in 1985. They eventually collapsed due to inefficiency and massive losses. Thus they have limited role in preparing Malays for higher level employment in the private sector.

Let us examine the assertion that large non-Bumi corporations have been happily riding the tide of their own profitability at the expense of the poor and needy Bumiputras. How else should non-Bumi corporations respond to state policies that blatantly favor Bumis if these corporations do not collaborate with their Malay counterparts? Do you really think that the “poor and needy Bbumiputras” would gain access to the contracts if those “Ali-Baba” partnerships were disbanded? Foreign firms would probably be the main beneficiaries of any reform (think about the Japanese firms who heavily profited from the Look East Policy in the 80s).

I am not denying that some people have excelled by overcoming whatever obstacles in their way. I am merely saying that similar to Bumiputera tycoons, most of the non-Bumi ones did not compete on a level playing field (as they received monopoly rights, concessions, subsidies, etc.), so they did not really make it “fair and square.”




Hello BO:

Good reply on the subject so far. It is not erroneous that Bumi participation in non-Bumi company is at the polar ends: mainly as directors or office/dispatch boys. This is decided on and dependent upon how much political connection or wealth that particular Bumi has. The rest of the Bumis ... well, they just don’t (or very difficult) get significant positions in those companies.

Non-Bumi companies constitute the back bone of Malaysia’s economy. It is the law in Malaysia that non-Bumi companies hire Bumi staff (look at it as a scheme to teach them how to fish). From what we have seen, this law is being mocked by hiring Bumis only for lowly positions, while reserving managerial, professional and executive positions to non-Bumis. In short, S, if he is really from a kampung, with no wealth or political connection, will find it difficult, if not impossible to have a career in such company. Even if he made it pass the entry level, he will encounter a significant amount of discrimination in the workplace. (sorry, no PhD thesis to show you the data for this....but from personal experience and from those who has been there ...)

Most Malays (those without wealth or connection) find refuge in companies like Renong, Proton, KLAS, MIMOS, etc.



Bravo B:

I almost gave up on myopic tunnel vision on the postings. They cannot even continue from or even digest a simple message from Bakri’s posting.

This is where I disagree with Bakri Musa – his assertion that the increase in the costs of projects is due to preferential policy. Bumiputras are not solely to be blamed for this; they do not have a strong grip of the core of the supply chain. The rent seekers among them (which constitute a minority), instead of taking the opportunity to build their business, take the easy route of being merely “proxies” to the non-Bumi companies, which in turn end up doing the bulk of the work and thus reap the bulk of the profit.

If one were to blame the poor and corrupt implementation of this NEP, one has to look at not just the government but also the non-Bumi large corporations that have been happily riding the tide of their own profitability at the expense of poor and needy Bumiputras.

This is just one example on how the Bumi policy has been turned around to benefit the non-Bumis. I have more to say about this issue, and several others, raised in these discussions, but I am to bogged down with work to do any writing. God willing, I will do so in the near future.





I think you could be misleading N by putting too much faith in the Malaysian private sector. You ought to be more critical about Malaysian private institutions; they too are heavily dependent on the government. Look at their moribund performance on the KLSE.

The quality of private universities here too is suspect. Malaysian universities, private or public, pale in comparison to Harvard, Stanford or Yale. To me, the ownership of a university is not relevant. I know of some state universities in the US that are as good, for example, Michigan and the University of California. It is the culture of the institution that matters to me.

We must be frank about the prevalent culture of mediocrity and conformity (bodekism) here in Malaysia. N deserves some help. He wants to come back; that is laudable, but he has some reservations. I have written him expressing a view which may sound unpatriotic.

On balance, N should stay in the US to get more experience before returning home. Nothing is more dangerous that a young man who is disillusioned with the system.

There have been numerous instances where brilliant scientists who answered our government’s call to return home and contribute; and they have been disappointed. I know a few who have come back and have now gone elsewhere including nearby Singapore. Dr. Bakri Musa too has similar experience (please read his book, The Malay Dilemma Revisited). Of course, there is no publicity in the press about the fate of Malaysian expats.


Din Merican


Dear S and HC:

It is erroneous to say that non-Bumi companies are willing to take Bumis only as drivers for the CEO unless you are trying to convince me that drivers make up 20-30percent of the workforce. In that case, almost every company staff member (including the tea lady and office boy) would be chauffeur-driven. Unlike traditional paternalistic family firms, most of the large organizations that you mentioned have Bumiputeras in high-level positions. Here are a few examples:

YTL directors: YB Dato' (Dr) Yahya bin Ismail, YB Mej Jen (B) Dato Haron bin Mohd Taib, Syed Abdullah bin Syed Abd Kadir

Berjaya directors: Tan Sri Datuk Abdul Rahim Bin Haji Din, Dato Suleiman Bin Mohd Noor, Dato Hj Mohd Yusoff bin Jaafar, Mohd Zain bin Ahmad, Dato Mohd Annuar Bin Zaini

Genting deputy chairman: Tun Mohammed Hanif bin Omar

Many of the successful Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs in Malaysia have not been immune to the system of political patronage. Over the years, it has become increasingly clear that a substantial number of non-Bumi tycoons have benefited from crony capitalism and inefficient rent-seeking behaviors.




Dear HC:

Our system can be better and fairer. To me, helping the Malays does not mean that we must deny other citizens the chance to enter university, or to sacrifice the quality of our education system. Both are not mutually exclusive. Malays need help, but they should never misuse the system and waste taxpayers’ money (non Malays too pay taxes and lots of it!!).

University education should be for those who can satisfy a set of academic criteria which must be applied as impartially as it is possible. In addition to the usual academic criteria, there must be a means test in the award of scholarships. The rich or well connected Malays, for example, must start paying for their children’s university education and not get a free ride because of their special status. Those who are given loans to further their education at university must pay back to free resources for others. That is the duty and commitment of the borrowers.

Academic brilliance is not the monopoly of any single race. There must be equal opportunity. America is a good example of upward mobility based on merit. People there have a chance to live the American dream through hard work and grit, as N C and Dr. Bakri Musa will tell you.

I am sure Dr. Bakri will respond to all the e-mails he has received on his True Malaysian article. I am glad that Dr Bakri has the courage to pen his thoughts on what is obviously a very contentious topic. You should visit his website www.bakrimusa.com.

Best regards,

Din Merican


Dear All:

I believe one should take a look at the whole big picture, not only at the academic point of view (which is just a small part of the world) but from the business, trading and commerce perspectives.

First, the number of Bumiputera is more than non-Bumiputera, so obviously positions held or space allocated in the university to Bumiputera will definitely be more. Why is there injustice that if allocation is based on the race ratio? Look at the tycoons in business: Genting, Sunway Group, Thai Thong, timber tycoons, YTL group, property tycoons, all Chinese; while Maxis and Astro are Indian. I notice that none of these organizations willingly take a Malay or Bumiputera in their organization, except as a driver to the CEO. This is a fact. The managers in these organizations hire their own kind.

There are many Chinese tycoons even though they are not well educated, but they are tycoons nonetheless. My friend’s father-in-law is a timber tycoon, and my ex-secondary classmate married nephew of YTL Group and had her wedding at Marriot Hotel, a grand wedding. Some Malays just have their wedding by the roadside with tents.

These large non-Bumi organizations which dominate the economy should give a helping hand to those poorly-educated Bumiputeras, by hiring them, or perhaps sponsor them. The NEP is necessary to close the income gap between Bumis and non-Bumis. If the government does not do anything about it, it will only get worse. The whole nation cannot move forward and be a developed country because there are people who are left behind and be a drag on the economy. We have to see the big picture.

I am glad that you have a sense of belonging to Malaysia, and maybe you can use your doctorate to help the poor people in Malaysia and reduce the income gap and eventually abolish the NEP.



Dear N:

The key to returning home is to be in the private sector. How, I do not know. The private sector is vibrant back home.

Perhaps the way to reform higher education is through strengthening private institutions. Consider the fact that Stanford, as well as Harvard, Yale and most of the top institutions in the States are private. The key is to have private universities as well as research institutions that can get government funding.

Let us discuss how this would be possible.



Dear Dr. Bakri:

I would like to comment on your article. Your thesis is that non-bumiputera (henceforth NB) do not “feel like true Malaysians” because they are denied special privileges. I believe this thinking is flawed.

I hope to return to my home country on finishing my doctorate here. I am not too concerned about the financial impact of returning (with at best an 80 percent pay differential even adjusted for cost-of-living disparity), nor the fact that I will not be able to do the kind of work that interests me because the industry in Malaysia is insufficiently developed for the kind of technical work I enjoy. What concerns me greatly is that I will not be able to contribute my skills and (mediocre) talent to the progress of our country. I fear the skin ceiling, of not being able to make an impact and be given significant responsibility commensurate with my abilities, thus invalidating my reason for returning.

I believe many NBs currently residing abroad share my apprehension. The roots of our concern lie not in policies that promote the advancement of Bumiputeras, instead in the propagation of policies and ideas that tout the idea of dominance (Kedaulatan/Ketuanan Melayu).

Let me start with an example in our local universities. We all know the famous Terrence Gomez and K.S. Jomo case. Let us disregard them for a moment and look at the organization of our most celebrated institution, University Malaya. Of 12 departments, there are only 2 NB deans, one Indian and one Chinese. Similar numbers persist for Assistant Deans and other academic positions. Such a trend exists for nearly every local public university. I do not believe that there is any NB Chancellors or Vice Chancellors of local public universities (I may be wrong).

I really struggle to believe that there is such a disparity in academic prowess and/or administrative ability that there is not more representative distribution of responsibilities. Does this race-based provision in our local public universities do anything to advance the lot of Bumiputeras? Some might argue that they serve the same function as the rise of the Bumiputera business technocrat in the 1990s, that of role-model and inspiration. Of course, I fail to see how this idea holds water. How does the appointment into an important academic position of someone with little research productivity save a doctorate from, say, Kalamazoo State, inspire the next generation of Bumiputera academicians?

The same argument applies to most of our local institutions. There are some who explain the lack of NB participation in the civil service and other non private-sector institutions as an example that NBs are not interested in serving the nation and are only concerned with making money. That argument disgusts me. I firmly believe that it is not the lack of patriotism that prevents NBs from pursuing such a career, it is the not unfounded conception that one would spend the rest of one’s life doing inconsequential work, not because of one’s ability or lack thereof, but because of policies that promote the idea of dominance, not equanimity.

My point is that we should be careful to appreciate the subtleties of these policies, a point you do not make in your article. We should also recognize that there are both explicit and implicit special privileges, and it is precisely the latter, and not the former, that the majority of the disenfranchised overseas Malaysians despise. I am all for policies, especially in education, that strive to better the lot of Bumiputeras. What I and others fear is the propagation of policies that promote Bumiputera dominance, and that will alienate non-Bumiputeras and prevents them from being true Malaysians. Your article mentions that we should not let others determine our identity as Malaysians. How can we not when these policies have sunk so deeply into our national psyche that they are now not merely edicts, but a culture?

You mentioned that those of us who attend elite institutions or who are otherwise successful despite nongovernmental help, have successfully breached policies of special privileges and thus should not be concerned about these policies as we never needed them anyway (if I read you correctly). As mentioned, we are not immune to the effects of special privileges even though we have thrived despite of it.

Let me end by saying that I do not and never have believed, that Malays want this idea of a rightful dominance. Instead it is a dangerous idea espoused by a few in power and we must not allow it to thrive.

My other point is more personal. Like many others, I have been fortunate to receive substantial financial support from American institutions for my education. When all is said and done, I estimate that the total amount I will have received is in excess of US$400,000. I should owe a far greater debt, and feel more attachment to America for the opportunities which I have been privileged to enjoy, as well as the opportunities which will hopefully await me upon graduation. Yet I irrationally feel, at my heart’s core, a strong attachment to my home country, an infatuation with her and her people that persuades me to sacrifice much in the future in a vainglorious attempt to bring about some good in the country of my birth. However this desire will be for naught if I am convinced that I cannot bring about any progress, and share in the future of my country, despite my best efforts, because of the color of my skin. I believe I am not alone in this, and that many of our country’s best feel the same way. It is this that disillusion, not the 5 percent discount in the purchase of a house given to Bumiputra buyers.



Sdr Bakri,


I was on medical leave for a while after my eye surgery. It went well and I am now recovering fast. Of course I still stick to old rules like avoiding certain foods and to take my beta-carotene tablets, and Chinese medication. I can tell you that I am having my sight back. Thanks to modern technology, but above all, to Almighty God.

I read your article with interest. I have been away from home for about 20 years. I share some, if not all of your views. We have our own complexes: superior, inferior, or other. One thing I do not agree is that someone would forget his or her childhood language. This is something built in, psychologists or linguists will tell you that it is intrinsic, within you. It is not something I will forget even if I live in a remote world for a very long time, I may forget certain technical words, but I will never forget my language. I completely disagree with your Chinese fan.

I have studied 911 events and talked with Americans on the subject. I would reserve my comments, but the “cave man” is incapable of orchestrating such an event as 911. It was just too complex; it required the cooperation of so many departments and organizations. My own conclusion is contrary to the official story, so our cave man is not the culprit even though I am not a conspiracy theory maniac.

When I was in UK 30 years ago, I was approached by an English man who said to me that we Malays were so privileged. He had been fed that propaganda by many Malaysian Chinese. I asked him what was the ratio of Malay and Chinese students abroad before the NEP? Of course he did not know. Well, it was 1:5 or so in favor of the Chinese.

We all have our own little experiences. Now I am back home I cannot accept this notion of whether you are a “true” or “not true” Malaysian. There is no such thing anyway. Just be a Malaysian, that is all, do not distinguish people by the word “true.” I am a Malaysian alright, there is no “true” in it. Just like we have problems with some members of the Islamic Party (PAS) who say that their Islam is the true Islam, so they are true Muslims, others are not “true” Muslims. Come on, only God can say that.

I am now studying into another big subject of my interest, Kundalini.

So, all the best to you and your family, keep up the good work.

Best regards. Wassalam. Note: If you were to Americanize your name, you should use Moses Baker!



On Being A True Malaysian: Readers’ Responses

[Note: Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity. MBM]

Dear Bakri:

It is a long article, but I will pose some questions.

I am curious at your statement on not extending these privileges to those of other races and restricting them only to poor Bumiputras. Most of the people I know advocate extending assistance to all in need regardless of race. They are not asking for “special privileges,” because they have seen the sinister outcome of nourishing a crutch mentality. If we remove race from all of our policies, that will go a long way to mitigate the animosity that exists among the different ethnic groups today. Note that Bumiputras will still benefit most under this new proposal, if you contend that they are the largest group of the underprivileged, and by corollary they would be the largest recipients of such assistance.

On the question of being able to speak Malay, is it mandatory to be able to speak it for one to be a Malaysian? It would be in your best interest to, but I am not sure that it is a requirement for your “Malaysian-ness.” Much like it is in your best interest to be able to speak Spanish and, alas also English, in California, but it is not mandatory. The question on the minds of many Chinese is, “What do I gain by studying Malay? Would it improve my chance of getting into school, of advancing in government institutions?” The sad fact is that most Chinese have been disillusioned by the reality, so many of them do not care much about studying the language. In no small measure this is a protest to the racial policies.



Dear Bakri:

I tend to agree with HC. I do not think that non-Bumis are asking for special privileges, just equal opportunity based of merits and economic background.



Dear Bakri:

That will only happen when race is no longer a consideration in Malaysia. Right now, I'll just join you, arm in arm, in our dreams.



Dear Bakri:

I think we should also be truthful with ourselves. If “special privileges” is a term applied only to Bumiputras (pardon my ignorance but I cannot be sure that it applies only to them), then let us just face the truth head on and call it “racial discrimination.” I am too, for getting rid of race as a policy and simply providing more assistance to ALL under-privileged people, regardless of race. Then, whether you restrict or extend it is not my concern. The race card is the true Malaysian dilemma, and it need not be so. Underneath our skin, we are all equal in the eyes of God/Allah. I consider that I have Malaysian characteristics, for example, in the kinds of food I enjoy, but I have never considered myself a “true Malaysian” nor do I aspire to be one, whatever that means. I have often imagined what Malaysia would be like if we were all treated equally and fairly as simply Malaysians.

I will continue to pray for such a day to come. You may say that I am a dreamer, but I am not the only one.




Dear Bakri:

Quite the contrary, I think when Malaysia has reached the enlightened state of being race-blind, we can freely call ourselves Malaysian or Malaysian-XXX, whatever that suits your fancy. Until then, obliterating your ethnic background will not achieve anything positive, just look at how the Indonesian Chinese are being treated. They speak Indonesian, adopt Indonesian names, even convert to Islam, and what is the result? They are despised and persecuted more for losing their dignity. I say be proud of your heritage and stand up for your rights. The Jews were being persecuted for thousands of years, yet never backed down and forsake their heritage and identity. That’s courage and perseverance.




I am glad you stated your points clearly. Being Malaysian is a state of mind. I could be something else, even an American the way an immigrant Pole or Italian is, and it would not have made much difference to me as a person.

In today’s world, one’s nationality is increasingly irrelevant. But I am not suggesting that there is no such thing as being patriotic (which I define as being loyal to one’s country and being willing to put one’s life on the line in defense of the country). My stakes are in Malaysia and I will be loyal to and defend my country. All citizens should.

I am a mixed bag of racial blood (my mom was from Sri Lanka of Tamil descent, my Dad’s father was half Chinese, and my paternal grandmother was a Malay Bugis). I am Malay, my faith is Islam, and I am a Muslim. I have also been labeled a “Mamak.” That is not going to change either as far as I am concerned. Since I was born in Malaya, that made me a Malayan, and when Malaya became Malaysia in 1963, I was classified as a Malaysian, and now I carry a Malaysian passport. If I decide to live in Australia, after a while I can become an Australian. As a citizen of Australia I would defend her as any other Australian. And it would not make any difference as to who am I. I am still a Muslim and a Malay (and a Mamak too!!).

My daughter who married a Cambodian of French nationality is French, although she was born in Singapore. I never objected to that, and have no regrets. Let us forget about labels. We should no longer worry what others label us, my dear friend.

Your father Allahyarham Pak Musa taught you to have an open mind because he could see the future, although he could not articulate (no one else could) what the 21st century would be like. But Pak Musa acted on his instincts. He molded you to be different and gave you the encouragement and courage to be different. What a difference that has made to you. You are good human being, a Malay, a Muslim, and a successful professional doctor and surgeon. Your Malaysian nationality has not prevented you from living your life the way you saw fit. Even if you were American, you are still a Malay and a Muslim.


Din Merican


Dear Bakri:

Basically, the question I would like to throw is: How far should we go with the ideal of a race-blind Malaysia?

Two things: We do not need one bland culture or identity to be race-blind; we can celebrate our differences without being prejudiced of one another. That is the sociology textbook definition of NOT being racist. Affirmative action should be abolished not for the sake of the non-Bumis but for the sake of the people who are receiving it. This is only according to the philosophy of teaching the hungry how to fish instead of simply giving them a fish. This has been Dr. Mahathir’s dilemma for a long time. Those waiting for a handout from the government will never learn to be competitive.

Please keep in mind that this is not a problem of one race or culture, it is simply a folly of human behavior. Ironically, I had to leave Malaysia to really begin loving it. You never know what you have till it’s gone!



Dear Dr.Bakri:

Thank you for sharing that. I believe that I am a “child of the universe....” Asking who is more Malaysian is just like asking who is more Muslim. We can also ask: Are you a “true” Malay? We are just born that way.

There have been times when I felt ashamed to be Malay. At times I even wished that I was a mixture of say, Chinese! I would probably have been fairer, cleverer, luckier and better off. But having entered the fifth decade of being “me,” I have no choice but to accept me for being who I am: a Malay, a Malaysian, and a Muslim.

As for my children, I can only hope that they will become even better citizens, having had the advantage of living in several parts of the UK, Ireland and elsewhere. My eldest daughter, K, was born in Cairo 27 years ago, but she is Malay, 100 percent! She married a kampong boy and is expecting a baby sometime in September, God Willing! My eldest son, A, had decided since he was a little boy that he will someday marry a “rich” woman. I do not think race or even nationality has any bearing. My youngest son, AA, aspires to be a neurosurgeon and thinks he will one day marry a “Mat Salleh” lady. My daughter, A, is getting engaged next month to her “Best friend” who looks 90 percent Chinese. His father is a Sabahan-Chinese Muslim convert. They are both reading Medicine in the UK. Oh, my number four, H, has been going steady with his high school sweetheart of Javanese origin.

Back in 1993 when we had to return to Malaysia for good, we were so unhappy. So who can rightly say that you are not a “true” Malaysian? Isn’t there the whole wide world to live and work? If you were not a Malaysian, I do not think that you would even bother to write regularly about our homeland. You have published your very own books. How many of us have done that? We all here are the katak bawah tempurong (frog beneath a coconut shell) while you with your brilliant ideas and suggestions are out there. You perceive things differently. It would not have been the case if you were living here permanently. In your heart, you are STILL a Malaysian, and always will be.



P.S: I saw some people cutting down the rambutan trees at your late parent's house recently.


Dear Bakri:

My ideal Malaysia is exactly what the Tourism Department is trying to sell, “Malaysia, the True Asia,” where the different cultures are celebrated. Let Malaysia forms its own identity by way of natural evolution, not with artificial and arbitrary dictation from any group of people.



Dear Dr Bakri Musa:

Interesting article! Here are my thoughts.

On the question of nationality or religion there can be no leeway, either you are a Muslim or you are not; likewise, either you are a Malaysian or you are not. There is no such category as a better Muslim or true Malaysian. What constitutes a better Muslim or a true Malaysian? As long as you subscribe to the five pillars of Islam, then you are a Muslim. Likewise, as long as you carry a Malaysian Identity Card or passport, then you are a Malaysian.

To me the question is best answered by the individual. Am I a Malaysian or am I not? The test is how you feel about your identity. Some are embarrassed to admit that they are Malaysians or Muslims, thus arises the issue of being a true Malaysian or Muslim. If the person carries a Malaysian passport but does not consider himself or herself a true Malaysian, then what nationality is that person? If the person does not feel that he or she is a true Malaysian then I suggest he or she should give up his or her Malaysian citizenship and apply to be the citizen of the country that he or she feels best suited or where he or she can be proud to be identified with.

The other issue is rights versus privileges. All Malaysians have the same rights except some are accorded certain privileges. Not having these privileges does not make a person any less of a Malaysian. To vote and live in Malaysia is a right to all Malaysians; these cannot be withdrawn. Privileges can be withdrawn at any time. The dissatisfaction over privileges will not happen if they are accorded to those deserving and not to those well connected. Take the example of scholarships given to children of ministers. They can well afford the fees and tuition. This is an abuse of the privileges. More importantly such abuses deprive the more deserving students of a chance.

Then there is the issue of implementation. The government needs to clearly delineate the policies of its various departments. We have JPA giving out scholarships and we also have MARA doing the same. We should clearly define that JPA gives scholarships to all deserving Malaysians and let MARA handle only the Malays or Bumiputras. MARA should be like the Bureau of Indian Affairs if you want to take it that far. When you have two government agencies duplicating their efforts then there will be more waste and inefficiency. JPA should offer scholarships based on the population ratio and let MARA take up the slack for Bumiputras or Malays.

To date few have questioned the efforts of MARA to alleviate the economic status of Malays and Bumiputras. Malaysians have accepted the role of MARA in the advancement of Malays and Bumiputras. MARA on the other hand needs to focus on activities that best meet these objectives and refrain from others that are not productive in the furthering those objectives. Currently we have enough colleges under MARA to accommodate Malays in higher education. MARA also needs to realize that there should be meritocracy in accepting Malays for its colleges as well. Not all Malays are college material, and not all Malays need college education. Some are more suited for farming; others are more interested in technical skills and vocational studies. Not everyone should get a degree. When our car breaks down, do we get an automotive engineer to fix it or do we get a mechanic?

Admissions to MARA colleges also flawed. Selection criteria need to be changed and should be based on need rather than demographics. There are more deserving Malays from the rural areas that are deprived of an opportunity to further themselves. I have personally met and interviewed them.

On the subject of merit, top ranking colleges and universities in the US have no problem getting the top SAT and GPA scorers for their freshman class. But through my experience as International Student Advisor and Director of Student Services, these universities would like to have diversity of talent and leadership qualities from their freshman class. The universities know they can deliver a sound education, so the question for them is what can the applicant brings to the campus apart from their academic scores. Usually the Director of Admissions will have the applicant write a short essay on why he/she should be accepted and what skills or special qualities he/she will bring to campus.

Being a Malaysian and living in the US does not make me any less Malaysian. Otherwise why do I pay so much attention to what is going on in Malaysia? Residency does not determine my nationality or my patriotism. I chose the US for both economic reason as well as educational opportunities for my children.

Yes there is a price to pay. Just like you, I have been labeled Melayuka or Malay American. There is a certain amount of envy among Malays but if given the chance, they too will be the first to grab the opportunity to live in the US. There is the other issue of “Malayism” that holds Malays back from venturing abroad en mass, and that is the kampong mentality, the adat and pepatah, and the false sense of security in numbers.

I remember my uncles and aunties saying “Kau nak pergi duduk di Amerika? Macam mana kalau sakit pening? Siapa nak jaga kau?” [You want to live in America? Who is going to take care of you when you are sick?”] My answer is Allah. Allah will take care of me, but under my breath I say that in the US there are hospitals to take of the sick people. Even in Malaysia when we are sick, do our relatives care for us?

This topic is interesting and I can talk or write forever but suffice to say that living in LA has not made me any less of a Malaysian or Muslim.

Wassalam and best regards,



May 14, 2005

Thanks for the article, Mr. Bakri Musa. I will repost it on my blog under “Tough Love For Badawi.”


May 20, 2005

Sdr. Bakri,

I just had my surgery a week ago and I am resting now. I am in a cybercafe checking my emails.

About Danaharta, etc., we seem to lack good people to manage public funds. There are many instances of fraud perpetrated by our own people. If they were true to Islam, this would not happen. We have been given all the opportunities through the political channels. MARA and Danaharta are good examples of success. We need more; we need to replicate the successes of these institutions and to ensure their continuity. The new wealth created by Malays in the ruling party is not the result of their effort and hard work. Consequently their wealth and “creations” do not endure, as exemplified by the fate of our brother, Halim Saad.

The government has created ample opportunities. It is up to us to get together to set up our own financial and other institutions and have them be managed by trustworthy people.

By the way, my classmate at MCKK (Malay College Kuala Kangsar) was H…M…. You may know him; he has been very successful, I think.

Well, only an idea.


May 23, 2005

Very daring, independent and insightful article! Congratulations!

Hope to receive more of the same from you. Thank you.


May 22, 2005

Dear Bakri,

This is a good piece, but there are rumors about Azman Yahaya’s activities while at Danaharta. Let us hope these are just rumors as I also know him. He is very well regarded and I also have high regards for him. He is now with Scomi (AAB’s son-in-law’s company), which in turn has a controlling interest in one controversial company.

There is no doubt that Danaharta is a success story, and Daim [former Finance Minister under Dr. Mahathir] too must get credit for this. It was he who started these GLCs after studying what FDR did under the New Deal in the 1930’s.

I will get the Sun Daily and read it.

Regards, D.

May 25, 2005

Dear Din and Bakri:

I sense that you are emerging to be a beacon, leading the school of Malay and Malaysian public opinion.

I sense that the stridency of the Police Commission Report that was released recently is significant. At earlier times the report would have simply been aborted during the investigation process. That the report survived and is being released is significant. In part it was a response to your tempered insistence in calling a spade a spade, the brickbats and distractions you received notwithstanding.

This is not to say that Badawi is doing enough; to me he is clearly not. Just to say that some movement in the right direction is now apparent. Whether it is more apparent than real, or simply more “even-Badawi-does-not-know-the forces-and-marriages-of-convenience-that-conspire-in-his- favour,” we might know till months ahead.

What is your take?

With money politics undiscerned as corruption, and opaqueness excused as inopportune timing, our national leaders leave Malaysians with a vague sense of mental or moral ill-being, a malaise of cynicism and despair (to quote Malcolm Boyd).

After some 20 months as PM, maybe I would give Abdullah the “cawat” as a little caveat instead of undressing him completely. He has to acknowldege and address the dynamics of the real dogfight currently taking place surreptiously in UMNO. It is not fair having the Mahathir-Gafar-“Duduk Pagar” Najib-PAS axis conspring against the poor shredded fellow.

One potential counterbalancing force would be an Abdullah-Anwar-Others in-the-wings axis. I will not characterize it as the axis of evil just yet, but I anticipate some good fireworks display.

Otherwise, all the other planning tools cease to humor any stupid consuming Malaysian.


Dear Dr. Musa,
               Thanks for sending a copy of your article commenting about Danaharta.  The essay reflects the thinking behind your sharp mind, and your strong and urgent sense of righteousness and transparency that is badly needed among the leadership and politicians in Malaysia.
               I am very impressed with your knowledge and how you keep yourself informed about what really is happening and what needs to be improved on back in your “homeland” Malaysia.
               Since independence Malaysia had not improved the living standards of most of its people other than the top 5 percent, despite the abundant relative natural wealth of the country.  I feel very depressed whenever I visit my family members in Malaysia.  The majority of my wife’s nephews and nieces had crossed over from KL to Singapore after working in Malaysia for a good 3 to 5 years.  They managed to obtain their Singapore PR. They came with their spouses and children in tow, not lured by the money or high pay but expunged by the deteriorating conditions of life in Kuala Lumpur.  They are all professionals in their own right.
               They cite their children’s education, lack of security, and high crime rates as some of their reasons.  They are prepared to trade their good life in KL with a good home and large car for a car-less family and life in an apartment (some in public flats).  We really hope the new prime minister can improve things and go beyond mere rhetoric.  The recent Police Commission report of a cop who accumulated an asset of RM 34 million has yet to be investigated.  They have yet to disclose his name and how he acquired such wealth.
               Have you had a chance to read that report?
               Your comments indicate your in-depth knowledge of current affairs of not only Malaysia but also US and other areas.  I really hope that Malaysia will take note of your article and implement some of the suggestions and points towards transforming Malaysia into a better society.
               I had just returned from an extended trip to the US after visiting Denver, Rochester, NY, and Las Vegas related to my industry and business.
               Many of my American friends were surprised that this was my first visit to Las Vegas although I had been traveling to the US at least once or twice a year for the last 30 years.  The reason is that I dislike gambling and always regard Vegas as a city of SIN.  The Singapore government has also decided to build and develop two integrated gambling resorts by 2008 to attract the tourist dollars.  The government is planning to cushion the social impact and problems.
               I will be leaving for Frankfurt and Barcelona this Tuesday and then to Beijing and will be back around end of June.  If you and Karen will be visiting the region this year I would love to meet up with you.  I still remember the interesting conversations that made my day ay your home appeared like a couple of minutes.
Looking forward to hear from you and please convey my regards to Karen.

Assalamualaikum Abang Bakri:

I read your essay in the Sun Daily. I think you have made a point there worth thinking. This is the spirit which I try to instill in my children, to be the best and to hold a post only because you are qualified for that job. I have an accountant, an IT man, an Actuarial student, a medical student and a potential medical student in my children of ten.

Modern Malay Muslim?




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