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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.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #79

Chapter 12: Fragmentation of Malaysian Society

The Unraveling of Malay Society

In the early decades following independence, glaring interracial inequities were the major factor in interracial animosities. Today such inequalities have been greatly reduced, and a new problem has cropped up: increasing inequities within Malays. Income disparity specifically is worse among Malays, especially since the 1990s. The Malay middle class is not expanding as rapidly as during the first decade of the NEP, or compared to those of the other communities. Malays are disproportionately over represented among the poor and near poor.

While Malay leaders are quick to recognize the dangers of interracial disparities, there is surprisingly little willingness to acknowledge let alone solve the more dangerous problem of intra-Malay inequities.

This general acceptance of socioeconomic disparities among Malays is a carry over of the feudal mentality: the mindset and belief that sultans, aristocrats and others should be at the top of the social heap, with the peasants meekly accepting their fate at the bottom. This is reinforced by religious beliefs (“It is so written in the book”). With rising modernity, Malay villagers no longer readily accept their position at the bottom of the pile with equanimity. Expectations have rightly risen, and therefore that much more dangerous if not satisfied.

There may have been some vicarious satisfaction earlier on among poor Malays in seeing a few of their kind joining the millionaires’ club, hitherto the exclusive preserve of non-Malays. Such reflected racial glories have long gone, hastened by the obscenely ostentatious lifestyles of the newly rich Malays. What grates Malays most is that while the rich and successful among non- Malays made it on their own effort and ingenuity, many newly rich Malays got theirs courtesy of the NEP or through outright corruption and rent-seeking behaviors.

A revealing reflection of this new perception is to observe the behaviors of Malays with skills and talent that are in demand globally. During my youth, it was unheard of for such Malays to contemplate emigrating. Today, they are all seeking ways to stay back in the West. Few have considerations of the traditional sense of patriotism. These include even children of ministers. Malaysia Airlines (MAS) is losing its senior pilots in droves for the same reason. Their skills are globally recognized; they see no reason why they should sacrifice themselves with reduced pay especially when they see politicians and favored cronies raking in the dough.

One senior Malay pilot explained it best. Initially he too was caught up with the nationalistic fervor and willingly joined MAS when it split from the old Malayan Airways jointly owned with Singapore. He endured substantial pay cuts in doing so. What grated him most was the arrogance of Tajuddin Ramli who bought a controlling interest in MAS (aided by generous financing from GLC banks). As the new Chairman, he lorded it over the loyal employees who had worked hard to make the company successful. Tajuddin’s expression of gratitude to them was that if they did not like the new MAS, then they should leave. So that pilot did. Not only did he earn considerably more by working for a foreign airline, he had every Hari Raya off! That pilot was not alone.

Many Malaysians leave not because they are disloyal, rather the glaring disparity in what they could earn elsewhere. There are non-Malays who leave for essentially the same reason but hide behind such spurious excuses like being discriminated against in Malaysia.
The country is fast losing its precious talent through such emigrations. Previously when only non-Malays were involved, Malay politicians would gleefully label them as “unpatriotic.” Later, when young Malays too began leaving, these leaders began taking note.

The political division among Malays is between the conservatives on one hand, and the progressive and mildly republican types on the other. I say mildly republican because most Malays still have not given up on the idea that their sultans have a mandate from heaven (daulat). This is further reinforced in Islam, even though most Muslim countries have done away with their kings and sultans. This division is compounded by the rise of political Islam. When religion mixes with politics, the result is always volatile. In America, the engagement of the Christian rights with the Republican Party is polarizing the country and aggravating existing culture wars.

The division with respect to Islam can be simplistically put as between the progressive liberals and the fundamentalist conservatives, or between those who interpret the Quran and other ancient texts in their context (the “contextualists”), and those who read them literally, the “literalists.” This division is again artificial and unnecessary. Many also conveniently but erroneously describe this as a fight between UMNO and PAS, the two primary Malay parties. It is not, as the fundamentalists exert considerable influence in both parties. Consequently, liberal Muslims feel squeezed out from both parties, with each party trying to outdo the other in appearing more Islamic, that is, more conservative. The fear of liberal Malays, which is unrealistic and unjustifiable, is the Talibanization of the country. The Islamists cannot impose Islamic laws on Malaysia simply because they cannot get the support of non-Muslims. Many Malays do not support the proposition either.

Non-Muslims conveniently stay out of this intra-Muslim (basically intra-Malay) dispute not because they are not affected by the outcome rather they know that this is a battle those fundamentalists can never win. I agree with the second proposition, but not the first.

The constitutional amendment of 1988 allowing for parity between the Syariah and civil courts is instructive. Since then there have been many decisions of the Syariah courts that made many uneasy. The latest, and one that received the widest publicity, involved a recent convert to Islam. The poor soul failed to notify his wife of this fact, and when he died, she challenged the decision to bury him as a Muslim. The civil court declined to hear the case claiming it had no jurisdiction over matters that should fall under the Syariah. There are other equally distressing decisions of the Syariah courts that unnerve many non-Muslims, especially where one party to the dispute is a non-Muslim.

The Islamic establishment vastly expanded under the Mahathir Administration, part of his strategy to co-opt those young Muslims. It was also a massive public works project for these otherwise unemployable Islamic Studies graduates. Despite their preferential absorption into the public sector, they still form the largest number of unemployed graduates. Perversely, the government’s generous expansion of the Islamic establishment encourages even more young Malays to opt for Islamic Studies. This is the single biggest contributor to the lack of Malay competitiveness.

This does not have to be so. Islamic institutions, in particular schools and universities, could be modernized and made relevant. That is the only way to make Islam an effective force for modernizing Malays. I will pick up on this thread later (Chapter 18).

Next: Learning to Disagree Agreeably


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Bakri, I am an ardent reader of your articles. They are thought provoking. Dr. Samuel Huttington's CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS may be misplaced. I do not see a fight between Muslims and Christians. The christian are accomodating but it would take some generations to come, but both will realise that they are from the same prophet. But I am really worried that the Muslims will fight with another culture. In Malaysia this has taken root. The Government has taken many steps but the share of the economy seems to accrue to certain Melayu Baru who have been told by a former MB of Selangor to think like the chinese when doing business, and the chinese. Yet the chinese decry the lack of level playing field. This I believe is a fight - a small fight but at a world stage I see this phenomena taking shape. Think Africa (Sudan and Darfu;Other countries like Mugabe's: where does he get the weapons) Venezuela,Cevez rejoicing the launch of a satallite through a Chinese launch pad, and have made inroads into other economies in search of resources) and the USA where chinese espionage is rampant. I do not want to talk of the SEA countries and other countries in the pacific rim. Could I be right if I say that in days to come the CLASH will be between Muslims and the Chinese. Please throw some light to my worry!!

2:12 AM  

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