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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, November 16, 2008

Note To A Malaysian Obama


Malaysiakini.com, November 13, 2009

M. Bakri Musa

On Tuesday November 4th, 2008, America became, in the words of comedian Jon Stewart, more of a “show” nation and less of a “tell” one. In electing Barack Obama, America shows the world that it is now closer to being that “more perfect Union,” to quote the preamble to its constitution. Nations are like people; it matters not where you have been, more important is where you are headed.

In his victory speech Obama cited 106-year old Ann Dixon Cooper from the South who recalls only too well the time when women and blacks were not allowed to vote. The fate of blacks was worse. In his stirring speech Obama challenged Americans to imagine their nation a century hence; what his young daughters would experience should they be lucky enough to live as long as Ms. Cooper. Would they too see comparable progress as that witnessed by her?

Obama’s victory captured the world’s imagination, especially in Kenya where his father was born, and also in Malaysia, but for a far different reason. I had intimation of this when on meeting Malaysian students in New York the weekend before the elections I was asked whether Malaysia is ready for her own Barack Obama. Before replying, I countered with a question of my own: Is there a Malaysian Obama, or more specifically, is Malaysia capable of producing one?

Labeling Barack Obama

Obama is the product of a white mother and a black father. To be sure, they were no ordinary parents; both had PhDs, with his father’s from Harvard. Obama however was brought up for the most part by his maternal grandparents, a solid Middle America couple from Kansas.

In achievements, Barack followed the trajectory more typical of an ambitious white middle class family: exclusive “prep” school and an Ivy League education. While Obama could throw a mean basketball hoop, his climb to the top was through academics, not athletics or music. Stated differently, Obama’s path to success hews closer to a Kennedy than a Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Obama adopted the faith of his mother and grandparents, not of his Muslim father or stepfather, which is a minority albeit a fast-growing faith in America.

In his speeches, from the imageries and metaphors he uses down to his accent and delivery, Obama is more Jack Kennedy than Jesse Jackson, more Cambridge, Massachusetts than Southside Chicago. Obama’s favorite expression is, “My fellow Americans!” not, “Yo! Brother!” Obama favors conservative dark suits and well trimmed look, not brash-colored Afro suits and daring hairdo.

Culturally at least, Obama is more white than black. Indeed, during the early part of his political campaign, he had to fight hard the widely-held perception in the black community that he “ain’t black enough.”

Yet to the dominant American society, Obama is labeled black, not white. The reason is obvious; he carries the physical features of a black, including or especially his skin color. During the intense campaign there were concerted efforts to paint him as being “not one of us.” This would have happened even if he were a conservative with a waspish name like Alan Lee Keyes and not a foreign one like Barack Hussein Obama.

In particular, Obama had to constantly deny that he was a Muslim. It is doubtful that Obama would have secured his party’s nomination, let alone the election, had he been a Muslim. This does not mean that America is anti-Muslim rather that it is not quite yet ready to accept someone from a minority faith to be in the White House. A generation ago America had difficulty digesting the fact that a Catholic would be president. This recent election season also saw during the Republican primaries misgivings about Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith.

The path to “a more perfect Union,” while steady, is slow.

Contrast that to Malaysia. There are many children of Malay-Caucasian as well as Malay-Chinese and Malay-Indian marriages exhibiting very “un-Malay” features. Yet Malay culture has been very welcoming of them, unhesitatingly embracing them as Malays. This is not a recent phenomenon. I had many childhood friends and classmates who had distinctly Chinese or Indian appearances because of adoption or mixed marriages, yet they were all considered and treated as Malays.

Why the children of mixed marriages between a member of the majority and a minority are not regarded as the majority in America, but they are in Malaysia, is an observation worth pondering. I am certain this is related to an underlying obsession with “racial purity.”

On this point, as a Malay I am heartened that my culture is very welcoming of those who are adopted, from mixed marriages, and do not look like us, whatever that presumed “Malay appearance” might be. We are, thankfully, not consumed with maintaining our “purity.”

My view is that Malaysia already has her Barack Obama in the person of Mahathir Muhamad. We do not recognize him as such because unlike in America where its Obama is considered a member of the minority, Malaysia’s majority Malays warmly and quickly embrace their Obama as one of their own. Nor is Mahathir alone; earlier leaders like Datuk Onn and Tunku Abdul Rahman also had mixed ancestry.

By biological heritage, Obama has equal claim to being black or white. Yet because of his unalterable physical characteristics Obama is labeled black. Even if Obama were to resort to the miracles of plastic surgery, skin-whitening cream, and hair coloring and straightening a la Michael Jackson, which Obama does not, he would still be labeled black.

For contrast, examine the group portrait of UMNO Supreme Council members. If they were to dispense with their songkok and Baju Melayu and instead put on modern attire, some of them could easily be mistaken as delegates from MCA or MIC, that is, until they open their big mouth and chant their chauvinistic slogan of Ketuanan Melayu!

Malaysian Obama Wannabe

Malaysians do not recognize their Obamas because they have adopted and are comfortable with the cultural values of the majority; they consider themselves and are being treated as a member of that majority.

Our Malaysian Obamas are comfortable with and have successfully adopted the dominant culture. They are fluent in Malay, not the language of their forefathers, just like Obama cannot speak a word of Swahili, or whatever language his late father used in Kenya.

The heroes Obama invokes are Jefferson and Lincoln, not some Mau Mau chief or Zulu King. Likewise, a Malaysian Obama wannabe must invoke local heroes, not Churchill, Nehru, or Mao. Similarly, just as Obama has a fondness for conservative business suits and not colorful Kenyan robes, his Malaysian wannabe must not only be comfortable in songkok and batik, but must also look good in them. You will not endear yourself to the majority (which is the first step to earning their votes) if you balk at wearing the songkok when in the palace to pay homage to the King or Sultan, or entering their place of worship wearing a short skirt and dispensing with a headscarf.

Clearly Malaysia is not only ready for a Barack Obama, it has already produced many. However, if we dispense with the racial label and ask the more substantive question of whether Malaysia could produce a future leader the caliber and transforming character of Barack Obama, then the answer is more complex and problematic.

Obama captures the imagination of Americans with his brilliance, eloquence, and charisma. He appeals to their finer instincts; he brings Americans together, transcending class, region, and most of all, race.

Despite all that it is well to be reminded that Obama would not have secured his party’s nomination if the Democratic Party had adopted the procedures of the Republican Party, with its winner-takes-all rules. Had the Democrats done that, Hilary Clinton would have been their nominee, not Obama.

For another, Obama owes his meteoric rise in the Democratic Party to many senior party leaders, in particular his fellow senator and himself a former presidential candidate, John Kerry. It was Kerry who spotlighted Obama by giving him a slot to address the Democratic National Convention in 2004 that catapulted Obama to the national scene. Obama followed that with his stirring all-American success story in his bestselling autobiographies, Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope.

I am certain that Allah in His justness has also blessed Malaysia with individuals with the leadership talent and charisma of Obama. Whether they would be nurtured by our institutions would be the biggest challenge. Our schools and universities would more than likely stunt their development.

Even if such individuals were lucky enough to escape the local system by attending international schools in Malaysia and then proceeding to great universities abroad, there is little reason to expect that they would be welcome back home. More than likely such scarce talents would have been seduced by the more lucrative and challenging opportunities abroad. Even if they were to return home they would have been tempted by the more rewarding careers in the private sector.

This problem is not unique to Malaysia but also plagues the developing world. It also afflicts economically “First World” but culturally and politically “Third World” countries like Singapore.

Even if our brilliant young Malaysian Obama could fend off those temptations and opt for a career in politics, his path would not be fast or clear. For one, he would have difficulty being accepted by the local party branch as those insecure village leaders would be wary of new challengers. Even if he were to be accepted, there would not be a Kerry-like senior figure to grease the path. Malaysian leaders promote only their kith and kind, not some unknown talent no matter how promising.

Lastly, the political structure and hierarchy in Malaysia do not lend themselves to such rapid renewals of leadership. The pattern is akin to the landing slots at major airports, with the third or fourth tier leaders all dutifully lining up taking their turns. If perchance one proves later to be a dud, it matters not; his or her turn is coming up anyway.

There is indeed a Malaysian Obama out there, but nobody cares or would bother to find or nurture him. That unfortunately is a loss for him, but more so for the nation.


Blogger benjaminloi said...

Dear Dr. Bakri Musa:
As a faithful "follower" of your weekly articles, i would like to hightlight some points you mentioned in your article:

1. Contrast that to Malaysia. There are many children of Malay-Caucasian as well as Malay-Chinese and Malay-Indian marriages exhibiting very “un-Malay” features. Yet Malay culture has been very welcoming of them, unhesitatingly embracing them as Malays. This is not a recent phenomenon. I had many childhood friends and classmates who had distinctly Chinese or Indian appearances because of adoption or mixed marriages, yet they were all considered and treated as Malays.

Why the children of mixed marriages between a member of the majority and a minority are not regarded as the majority in America, but they are in Malaysia, is an observation worth pondering. I am certain this is related to an underlying obsession with “racial purity.”

-- I had a worker from Bangladesh who married a Malay girl 13 years ago, they had 3 kids and to my very surprised, their kids are Malays so they are "bumiputra". Yes, without doubt, if you are a Muslim and follow the Malay customs, you can become a Malay and the society welcomes you and wholeheartedly accepts you, but if we think deeper, 1. why those people who very much want to be Malays in the first place? 2. why Malay society unhesitantly embrace them as Malays?
My Answer to question No 1: It is the benefits and privileges they are seeking after, we have many indian-Malays in Penang and Kedah who would do anything to prove that they are more Malay than Malay! My former Bangladeshi worker is doing likewise, I can't believe a foreign worker can father 3 Malay kids, but his children birth certificates are real! Malaysia government is taking the UK prodigy Suffiah as Malay, that's why our government provided her with full-scholarship. Americans are living in truth-"you're what you're, you don't have to be what we are in order to achieve what you want to be". Your article seems to propose that Malay society is more "inclusive", but this "inclusiveness" stems from a feeling of "insecure" and is geared towards the goal of elimination of other culture, language, race etc, to ensure there is only 1 race-Malay in the soil of our land. This "inclusiveness" - derived from the "exclusiveness" mentality harboured by narrow-minded Malays won't encourage the cultivation of genuine racial tolerance and would be a barrier for the healthy development of multi-racial society. If i were a Bugis or Minangkabau or Orang Java in Malaysia, I should be proud of my heritage and shouldn't be subjected to enormous amount of pressure for acknowledging my roots and my ancestral history.

My answer to question No 2:
Is it true that Malay society will unhesitantly embrace someone who claims to profess Islamic faith and follow the Malay customs-"way of life" ?? Let's examine it from a Sociologist's perspective, let's look at this hypothetical assumption -- if all the Chinese and Indian were to become Muslims and speak only Malay starting from tomorrow, do you think we would have only one Malay race in 3-5 years time? The answer is an emphatic NO. Why? Unless the Malay society is very progressive, otherwise they will once against point their finger at "Chinese-Malay" for dominating Malaysia economy and politics, it is possible in Thailand and Indonesia because they only have less than 3% Chinese in their total population. If all the Indians in Malaysia were to become Muslims, Mahathir won't be able to become our Prime Minister...why? Please read my article:

2:27 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

To me, he's Karim Raslan.

5:07 AM  

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