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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.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Kassim Ahmad's Di Ambang Sebuah Dunia Baru

Kassim Ahmad’s Prelude To A New World

[Note: I was thrilled to be asked by Kassim Ahmad early last year to write a foreward for his latest book, Di Ambang Sebuah Dunia Baru (Prelude to a New World). In particular, I complimented the publisher, considering that it was an establishment outfit. My praise however, turned out to be premature. The publisher reneged on Kassim and refused to publish the volume unless Kassim excised the more critical commentaries. That would have meant removing nearly a third of the volume. Kassim rightly refused to go along. Bravo to him!

Here is what I wrote.]

Di Ambang Sebuah Dunia Baru

Kassim Ahmad

Foreward by M. Bakri Musa

In a country where the official retirement age is 55 (now 56) years, and where many do indeed stop working on reaching that age, it is heartening to note that Kassim Ahmad is bucking the trend. He is still intellectually productive, as evidenced by this collection of his essays, Di Ambang Sebuah Dunia Baru (Dawn of a New World), his third. The title aptly describes the theme of these commentaries.

Bucking the trend defines Kassim. I first came across his work while in secondary school nearly half a century ago. At the time Kassim had just published his The Characterization in Hikayat Hang Tuah, an academic exercise in partial fulfillment for his honors degree. It was a thesis that would later shake the Malay world out of its cultural comfort zone.

In his dissertation Kassim took a decidedly different and necessarily negative view of the hitherto hero, Hang Tuah; instead Kassim extolled the virtues of the presumed renegade, Hang Jebat. In part, Kassim was reflecting the general anti-hero sentiment of the 1950s and 60s; the era of the Beatles, long hair, and social rebelliousness. It was also the time of my youth, the phase in one’s life where challenging tradition and accepted wisdom was a given. Thus Kassim’s dismissal of our legendary hero and cultural icon resonated with me.

Kassim did more. By shining the light away from its usual focus, he forced us to shift our view to a different angle. Consequently the same reality can now look very different. To many, that can be unnerving; to others, exhilarating. Regardless of how one reacts, one inevitably begins asking questions. To me, that is a healthy intellectual development; to those in power, very threatening. This is especially true in a feudal society; and ours is still one steeped in its feudalistic traditions and strictures.

Stimulating us to ask questions is what Kassim does best; therein lays his major problem. Our culture does not look kindly upon those who would dare see or imagine the world differently.

If we cannot find the solution, chances are we have asked the wrong question. That is the axiom in science. If we listen to the many questions stimulated by Kassim’s writings, chances are some will be the right questions. Once we have asked the right questions, then we are that much closer to finding the right answers.

I still treasure my frayed and faded translated copy of Kassim’s thesis. A few months ago, with Kassim’s permission, I posted his entire thesis in its original format and language (English) on the website, www.kassimahmad.blogspot.com. This will bring his work younger set, at least the Internet-savvy ones. It is my hope that this website will also be a repository of Kassim’s writings.

Characterization was only the beginning. Three decades later, Kassim again shook the Malay world with his Hadith: Satu Penilaian (Hadith: A Re-Examination). Sadly and true to form, before I could get my copy the authorities had banned the book!

Fortunately, some sympathetic soul in America saw fit to translate that important book into English, and I was able to obtain my copy.* In it, Kassim challenged the accepted wisdom that places the centrality of hadith on par with if not over and above the Holy Quran. The book did not endear him to the establishment, both religious and political. Kassim was effectively ostracized and forever tagged as “anti-Hadith,” plus some other equally derogatory terms.

I recently profiled Kassim Ahmad for the Sun. I was astounded by the responses from readers who were critical of him yet had not even read his books! Modern myths, like the classical ones about the purported heroism of Hang Tuah, do not die easily.

To me, Kassim’s Hadith, like his earlier Characterization, brings a much-needed fresh perspective. He again challenges accepted wisdom and forces us to think and re-examine our assumptions. To those in authority, enquiring minds can be very threatening, even dangerous.

It is precisely this quality of Kassim that is becoming rare in our society. We should be nurturing, not discouraging, this trait especially in our young lest we become a nation of sheep blindly following the shepherd. We are fast becoming what my friend Din Merican calls a society of ahli bodek (sucking up to the powerful).

I am reminded of the teaching techniques of the Sufi Mullah Nasrudin. He delighted in making fun of himself to illustrate a point to his students. One day his neighbor came to his door to demand the return of the mule the Mullah had borrowed a few weeks earlier. “I don’t have your mule,” lied Nasrudin. Unfortunately at that very moment the donkey brayed, and the neighbor exclaimed, “But I can hear the animal in your barn!” Whereupon Nasrudin, looking shock, replied in feigned indignation, “Would you take the word of a mule over the word of a Mullah?”

The moral of this delightful tale is that we should have the courage to not believe even those in authority if what they say does not agree with our experience and common sense. Even a donkey may the bearer of truth, and a mullah, lies. This is the recurring thread in Kassim’s essays and commentaries.

Back at my kampong, the villagers have a way of dismissing the hyperboles and grandiose promises of those in power: Tak masuk akal (It does not make sense!). What Kassim is saying is that we should have the courage to tell our leaders when what they preach tak masok akal.

I thoroughly enjoy reading Kassim’s essays; I learn so much both when I agree as well as when I disagree with him. It would be unfair for me to single out my favorites in this collection.

Kassim’s view on Islam is closer to what I profess. In particular, I share his concerns and dismay over the increasing assertiveness and overreaching of ulama in contemporary Muslim societies, Malaysia included. The Islamic establishment in many Muslim countries today is degenerating into the pattern of Orthodox Christianity of Medieval Europe.

The excesses of the clergy class were the undoing of the Catholic Church (helped by the invention of the printing press and growth of the humanist movement). The excesses of the ulama class today will have the same outcome, as we have seen in Iran and Taliban Afghanistan. The ubiquitous Internet and the spread of mass education will grease the slide.

In many Muslim countries, the religious establishment works in cahoots with the political authorities to tighten their grip over the ummah (community). The instruments of Islam are increasingly being used not to emancipate the masses but to oppress them. Friday sermons, that most sacred of our faith’s rituals, have degenerated into yet another propaganda medium for the state. Islam is being abused to justify denying women their rights to vote, an education, and their freedom. The height of perversion of our great faith is seen in Saudi Arabia where women are not allowed to vote, drive a car, or be out of their homes unless accompanied by their husbands, all in the name of “protecting” the womenfolk! Next door in Iran, with the Mullahs in charge, blatant abuses of basic human rights occur with impunity.

The Mullahs and their likes have conveniently framed the discourse in Islam such that criticizing them is tantamount to criticizing the faith. This is the fitnah (poison) the religious establishment is throwing at Kassim. I am appalled at how freely they throw around such contemptuous labels like murtad (apostasy) and kafir (infidel).

It is a tribute to Kassim’s inner strength and conviction that he is not silenced by such treatment. He has seen and experienced worse.

The powerful (religious and secular) would not indulge in their excesses without the complicity of others, in particular the intellectuals and commentators. It is this lack of effective checks and balances that undermines our nation. Kassim’s plaintive plea to the country’s editors and journalists, “Katakan Yang Benar!” (Utter Only the Truth!), is written more in sorrow, less in anger.

Kassim has every right to be angry at his country. That he is not is a tribute to the man’s basic humanity and inner sense of dignity.

His forthrightness landed him in jail once, courtesy of the intrinsically “un-Islamic” Internal Security Act that permits incarceration without trial. After his release, he wrote his Universiti Kedua (Second University). It makes for painful reading. If I have my way, I would make it mandatory reading for all ministers and civil servants responsible for that inhuman statute.

My political persuasion could not be more different from Kassim. He is a staunch socialist; I, a committed capitalist. To me capitalism has uplifted the fate and living conditions of the most number of humans. Through capitalism, literally hundreds of millions of Chinese have been freed from the oppressive clutches of poverty. Yes there are excesses and imperfections with capitalism; it is after all the creation of mortals, not of God. Many are diligently working towards correcting those imperfections and thus enhancing its effectiveness. The capitalism of today is far more humane and effective than the raw form that existed during Dickens’ time. The capitalism of tomorrow will also be far more fair and superior than the current version.

Kassim on the other hand views those imperfections and excesses as integral to the system; they cannot be separated away. To him, capitalism is inherently evil, exploitative, and destructive.

He extols the virtues and ideals of socialism. Yes, they are laudable; I share them too. Unfortunately they are just that – ideals. No one has yet been able to translate them into a workable and practical system. The collapse of the Soviet system is a tragic reminder of this flawed system. China avoids the fate of the Soviet Empire by “modifying” its socialism, putting a “Chinese” face to it. Practically it is capitalism in all but label, and with that China is fast emerging as an economic super power.

Socialism would more likely succeed if only humans were saints or angels, but we are not. We have to face or at least acknowledge this reality.

It is Kassim’s political views that landed him in trouble with the authorities. They could not discern the difference between communism, which Kassim passionately abhors not least for its atheistic foundation, and socialism, which espouses social justice.

Today, true to form, Kassim is not content with the status quo. He is currently exploring the so-called “Third Way” that would combine the idealism of socialism with the workable pragmatism of capitalism. He has uniquely combined his thinking with infusions of Islamic ideals. I find that extremely exciting.

In his New Year’s speech welcoming 2006, Prime Minister Abdullah exhorts Malaysians to work with him and the government to solve the nation’s problems. This patriot Kassim has done his part with these and other contributions. I only wish that those in power would heed his words.

It is a reflection of the times in Malaysia today that an establishment publisher, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Press, is publishing this volume. There was a time in the not too distant past when many editors would shy away from associating with Kassim. Consequently, some of the essays published here have previously appeared only in foreign publications. I congratulate UKM Press for undertaking to issue this volume. Its parent institution had earlier recognized Kassim Ahmad by conferring him an honorary doctorate in letters. It is good when a premier institution honors a premier intellect.

Though all these, Kassim has remained the same; what has changed, and for the better, is our society. It is now willing to embrace ideas beyond the accepted ones. More importantly, we are now willing and brave enough to ask questions that previously we would not have dared think about. We, individually and as a nation, owe Kassim a huge debt of gratitude for nurturing the Hang Jebat in all of us. That he is successful rekindles my optimism in our people and nation.

M. Bakri Musa

Morgan Hill, CA

January 2006

* A link to the entire manuscript is found on the same website (www.kassimahmad.blogspot.com).


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