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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 12, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #80

Chapter 12: Fragmentation of Malaysian Society

Learning to Disagree Agreeably

We must not only tolerate but more importantly also encourage differing viewpoints. That would force us to re-examine our own position more carefully. It would also be more productive if we could learn the etiquette of disagreement. Diversities are signs of Allah’s beauty and blessing, but only if we do not let them divide us; otherwise they would be a curse.

There will always be differences in views; it is how we handle them that matters. Doing away with those who disagree with us is not the answer, although this is often the reflex response of those in power, justifying it in the name of peace, unity, or national security.

That strategy is also inefficient. Dissenters often are among the most profound thinkers, or at least the ones likely to see what the crowd does not. Getting rid of them would deplete the community of such talent. It would also discourage new ideas and innovations. Only by subjecting ideas and policies to robust cross-examinations and discussions would we discover their strengths and weaknesses.

As Rumi indicated in his beautiful poetry, tweaking the familiar story of the blind men and the elephant, differences arise because we are all in a dark room and seeing only the part of the elephant available to our non-visual senses. Differences in opinion could be likened to lighting the candle, attempts at illumination. Even if the light were to illuminate only a small part of the room and would result only in reinforcing our previous perception, that light might just be enough to help others see their part of the elephant better.

Granted, some light may cast shadows and hide important elements; nonetheless with skills we could still infer something from those shadows. Yes, some lights are shone purposely to create shadows and hide blemishes and other aspects of reality one would not want highlighted, the standard trick of skilled photographers. Still others may light a match intentionally to ignite, not illuminate the room. Such individuals should be condemned before they destroy themselves and others. The wisdom is in separating those who wish to illuminate from the pyromaniacs.

The current diversity of views among Malays is positive, not negative; it should be encouraged. The challenge is to ensure that such differences be the source of strength, of forcing us to be critical. That is the only safeguard against the group being collectively led astray. Differences should not be sources of divisions and acrimonies. The solution is not to stifle dissent but to learn how to manage it, to convert divisive competition into fruitful cooperation. That would determine whether the current diversity among Malays would be a blessing or a curse.

There is little attempt at teaching Malays on managing differences. The tendency is to rally around the current leaders; they in turn exploit this by manufacturing imagined enemies in order to galvanize their followers. In such an environment, it is easy to label those with opposing views as traitors.

This lesson must begin with the leaders, but they have been derelict in setting good examples. We see too few public displays of civility among them. They are content with demonizing each other; they set the tone for their junior leaders and followers.

UMNO’s Abdullah and PAS’s Nik Aziz, are both ulamas. Soon after becoming Prime Minister, Abdullah made a big deal of leading his ministers in a communal prayer, of being their imam. Pictures of this were splashed all over, and later conveniently replayed during the elections. This was a blatant public relations attempt to convey the perception of the Prime Minister as Grand Imam, and to recall the powerful images of the Grand Caliphs of yore who were political as well as spiritual leaders.

Sadly I have yet to see both Abdullah and Nik Aziz praying together or listening to each other’s sermon. I doubt whether they would ever be at the same mosque. So much for the charity of spirit so cherished in Islam.

This lack of civility is seen among UMNO leaders. During UMNO’s Diamond Jubilee celebration in May 2006, Abdullah and Mahathir were conspicuous for their coolness towards each other. They refused to be in the same group photograph, even when prompted by their host, the Sultan of Johor. That is a terrible message to impart to their followers. In contrast, former Presidents Bush, Sr., and Clinton, once bitter political rivals came together to raise money for the Tsunami and Katrina disasters.

A few months later the verbal volleys between Abdullah’s ministers and Mahathir became increasingly ugly and uncivil. It culminated with Mahathir being pepper-sprayed on a visit to Kota Baru. A disgusting display of vulgarity!

UMNO Youth leaders found it advantageous to play an annual golf game with their counterparts in Singapore’s People Action Party (whose leader Lee Kuan Yew was once—perhaps still is—regarded as viscerally anti Malay). I have yet to see UMNO Youth leaders socializing with their counterparts in PAS or Keadilan.

As in politics, so it is with civil society. Leaders of Malay NGOs with differing philosophies rarely engage one another in civil dialogue. In their private moments, members of the conservative Muslim Youth Movement (known by its Malay acronym ABIM) would consider the more liberal members of Sisters-in-Islam as apostates! That is the most insulting epithet in Islam. Even the supposedly more educated groups like the Muslim Professional Forum are no better. Its members consider those Muslims of liberal theological persuasions as posing a “clear and present danger!”

The only times these leaders would get together were through the sponsorship of foreign entities, as when the younger leaders from the various political parties met in Washington, DC under the auspices of Johns Hopkins University, and NGO leaders in Kuala Lumpur under the sponsorship of the Adenauer Foundation. It took the father figure of the White Man to bring these young native leaders together.

Malaysians have yet to learn to disagree agreeably. They have not learned on how to engage one another in a civil manner. It is within our culture and tradition to do so. When differences arise, they should be the stimulus for us to find common grounds. At the very least it should prompt us to re-examine our respective positions. We are not always right and our adversaries not always wrong. We must have some tolerance for doubts and uncertainties. We must disabuse ourselves of our certitude.

Malays ritualistically resort to labeling those they disagree with; it is an intellectually lazy way to manage differences. It unnecessarily divides the world into “us” and “them,” further widening the chasm. We should be building bridges, not deepening the gulf.

The Divisiveness of Politics


Blogger benjaminloi said...

Dear Dr. Bakri Musa:
your article is truly thought-provoking!
However, i think our political leaders are too narrow-minded and the situation in Malaysia would not allow PAS, Keadilan and Umno leaders to sit together and "disagree" agreeably! They are answerable to their supporters and they supporters want them to disagree "disagreeably"... we may have to educate people to learn on how to agree "disgreeably" before we can have leaders who can do likewise...
To agree disagreeably may be a form of the "art" of diplomacy in the politics of the West. They have more mature electorate who would require their candidate to graciously concede their defeat and congratulate the winners, failure to do so would be disastrous for the candidate concerned because his supporters will "discard" him for not being "gentleman". In Malaysia, we have different type of supporters...there are hundreds of thousands of UMNO mobs out there...

9:02 AM  

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