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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.

Friday, August 03, 2007

From Tasawuf To Triangles

From Tasawuf to Triangles

(Or, On Parroting Versus Understanding)

Hanis Ahmad

(The writer is a surgeon in private practice in Kuala Lumpur. This essay first appeared in MCOBA (Malay College Old Boys Association) chat group. Re-posted with kind permission of the author.)

One basic problem with our culture is the lack of respect and appreciation for those who think critically, or for that matter, those who dare use their brains.

Our culture should honor, value, and place above the common herd the curious, the innovators, and the scholars. These are the individuals who explore new frontiers, expand our knowledge, weigh the evidences, and connect the dots in the puzzles of our lives. They enjoy their works for their intrinsic value, and they balance their priorities.

Our mantra should be, “From Tasawuf to Triangles,” an oblique reference to the glorious days of Andalusia, Spain, with its beautiful Moorish palaces based on simple triangular geometric designs. This symbolizes the direction our kids should be encouraged to pursue, from mysticism (tasawuf) and nostalgia to science and rationality.

Examine our present generation. Ask the young to sit for five minutes to view a news documentary or listen to some basic science presentation, and we will likely get a shrug and a dismissal. It is hard to get their attention away from trivia; they are focused on Fantasia.

They cannot even recognize much less appreciate novel ideas. Numbed by repetitious messages and admonitions from on high, our young are opting for the easy path. They mechanically memorize whatever they are taught and then vomit it out when asked to do so, as at examination time. We would not be too far off to label them as mindless. The surprise is that we managed to churn out such a generation in so short a time.

When these kids screw things up, we do not point out their stupidities or the errors of their ways. Nor do we suggest corrective measures. Instead we search for and seize upon some minimal or even imagined achievements and blow these out of proportion in the mistaken belief that it would be harmful to their self-respect to do otherwise. If that were not enough, we then remind them of their entitlement: Ketuanan Melayu!

If those measures were inadequate or do not produce the desired effects, we resort to lowering the passing or qualifying grades. Lest we think such shenanigans happen only in schools, consider that the man responsible for the Certificate of Legal Practice examination was recently jailed for falsifying the results. Perhaps he was defended by one of the lawyers he passed!

We have yet to learn or refuse to accept this stark reality: shifting goal posts does not bring us victory, or even the illusion of one.

Deluded by such bloated false praises, these kids continue their blunders onto adult life. Then they proudly become tailors for the largest flag in the world or compete to be singers of the most schmaltzy, self-pitying songs in their mother tongue. And when they prevail at such inane contests, they would receive the same, if not more, accolades and adulations as if they had cracked a revolutionary method for gene splicing or graduated magna cum laude in science from some prestigious foreign university.

You cannot completely blame these youngsters. After all, they have been told repeatedly that they need not strive for new ways or seek innovative solutions to our problems. The answers are all there in the holy book. By virtue of repeating a few lines, their minds would be illuminated and their souls saved!

A few may appreciate the hard work and diligent research that brought so much of the modern technological marvels they take for granted in their daily lives. Most however, are content to leave such endeavors to the hated infidel Westerners. Suffice that we can afford to acquire the next Mercedes S model, fastest Intel processor, latest Windows application, most luxurious Airbus, or even the fanciest MRI scanner. Besides, why is everyone making such a big deal about these inventions anyway? What research, what discovery? What is so impressive? The answers are all there in the holy book. Just master the language (Arabic), and then endlessly recite the passages! And magically, a flying carpet would appear to rescue and deliver us to the Promised Land.

Unfortunately, those content only with parroting the holy book and hadith are also serving as ready role models for the coming generation. It is easy for these elders to be dismissive or actively denigrate the virtues of modern research especially when they have not done any or have any clue of the intellectual and other efforts involved. It is so much easier merely to memorize and then mouth endlessly the same similes and platitudes, or regurgitate whatever the central religious office provides.

Our young continually see ridiculous ideas being given the same respect as those properly researched and thoughtfully formulated. They no longer know how to distinguish between the shadow and the substance, let alone engage in any meaningful discussion. When they attempt to, they resort to debating not the merit of the ideas rather who uttered them. They become consumed in endless puerile debates on the chronology of events or on the identities and ranks of the personalities and narrators involved. The merit, truth, validity or implications of the ideas do not interest them.

The few self-respecting individuals who readily see through the whole charade may mount some initial perfunctory challenges, but unable to bear the resulting ostracism, they too readily succumb. They learn fast that it is so much easier and more remunerative to simply shut up and go along. Impoverishment in the guise of empowerment!

Meanwhile the mainstream media and the public forums are humming with the same old messages preached by the same old snake oil salesmen in the same jual ubat style. The courtiers would continue to convince themselves that the sultan’s increasingly tattered bark loincloth is the latest in fashion statement. In schools, teachers who cannot string a coherent sentence in English are correcting English examination papers! And the band plays on!


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