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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.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Towards A New Malay

[Talk given at a forum at the University of Buffalo, on November 1, 2008, themed “Alif Ba Ta, Towards the New Malay,” organized by Kelab UMNO New York-New Jersey. The contents here are from my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia.]

Whenever the theme of this conference (or variations thereof, as with the “Malay Problem” or “Malay Dilemma”) is discussed, whether in the hallowed halls of Putrajaya or the warong kopi in Kota Baru, the various arguments expounded could be crystallized around two main clusters. On one side there are those who would confidently assert that there is nothing wrong with us, rather the fault is with the evil outside world intent on doing us in. The other would find nothing right with us; we are our own problems.

The two viewpoints may be poles apart in their basic assumptions, but they share one underlying commonality. They view Malays essentially as victims, with the first seeing us as victims of the merciless outsiders – the “them” – while the second viewing us as invalids, the tragic victims of our inadequacies, real and perceived.

The cruel “them” could be the colonialists. If only they had stayed out of our world, we would not today be burdened with a dangerous race problem, and we would not have to work so hard to keep up with them. We would then enjoy our tropical nirvana shaded by the lush fronds of the coconut tree and soothed by the lapping waves of the South China Sea.

Colonialism is now long gone. It is no longer cool to be a colonialist, except in such odd places as Russia. Still colonialism, or its variants, is being invoked every so often, and not just by the less informed. With the old form gone, the more sophisticated have invented new players to fill in the void. Enter the neo-colonialist. This modern variant is even more virulent as it is concerned with colonizing us mentally rather than just physically! Worse, those who fall victims to this new spell do not even realize that they are being colonized! Such are the awesome powers of the neo-colonialists!

If only these neo-colonialists in the form of the cabals of evil international financiers with their foreign ideology of capitalism would leave us alone, we would still have Bank Bumiputra and its massive portfolio of dud loans.

The “self blamers” do not lack for ammunition either. We are burdened by the inadequacies of our culture, we are being repeatedly reminded ad nauseam, and not just by our own kind. We are too nice and not aggressive enough, hence we are easily taken advantage off by others.

If only we are a wee bit kurang jar (uncouth), more kiasau (crude), or be more like “them!” Hence we are urged to have our own Revolusi Mental (Mental Revolution!”), be a Melayu Baru (New Malay), and assert our Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Hegemony). That would be our salvation, we are repeatedly assured.

There is yet a variation of this theme. If only we Malays were united! They would like us to be like sheep, meekly and blindly following the shepherd; follow our leaders, we are endlessly exhorted, even if they are corrupt and incompetent as they lead us over a cliff. To them unity is unanimity.

Culture is not our only burden. We have also strayed from our faith, they piously chastise us. Thus more religion, especially for our young, hugely expanded religious establishments, and more religious police to make sure that we stay on the straight and narrow path. Just to be sure, we also concocted a new and presumably improved version of our faith, Islam Hadhari.

My favorite is the self-blamers’ pseudo-scientific theory that the fault is with our genes, our fate sealed the moment we were conceived. There is nothing that we can do to alter that; so accept it. It is our price for indulging in too much inbreeding! “We must intermarry!” our supposedly scientifically enlightened leaders urge us!

If our ancestors’ psyche was destroyed by the religious determinism of the past (our fate is written in the book – al kadar), today our minds, especially those of the young, are being crippled by the biologic determinism propagated by these pseudo scientists whose understanding of modern genetics is gleaned from reading Readers’ Digest.

A Different Approach

My approach to the “Malay problem” is different. I could not care less what caused our present tribulations; I am more interested in solving or at least ameliorating them. Physicians treat and at times cure complicated diseases like cancers or even simple ones like appendicitis without ever knowing the cause. We do with what works. That is my approach to the “Malay problem.”

I do not belittle the importance of understanding the cause of something. Consider the miracle of the polio vaccine, made possible because we know exactly what caused the disease. Polio is now wiped out, and with that the elaborate iron lungs and fancy reconstructive surgeries.

In the sphere of human and social behaviors however, unlike that of the natural sciences, there is rarely a unitary cause or principle to explain reality. Often it is multi-factorial, their interactions and dynamics rarely predictable. The best that we can hope for is that by replicating some of these conditions we might also reproduce the same results.

In approaching the “Malay problem,” I am also guided by another overriding assumption. That is, there is nothing unique to the problems we face; others have faced similar problems. The corollary to this is that there is much that we can learn from others, those who are successful as well as those less so.

Voluminous treatises have been written on the rise and fall of great civilizations and empires. Today however, I am discussing the fate of smaller social units and over a much shorter time span. The rise and fall of civilizations span centuries; the relevant field of studies there being primarily history, archeology, and perhaps the classics. My discussions today examine the development of societies over a much shorter time period of a generation or two, within the memory of those currently living. The relevant disciplines here are essentially the social sciences, specifically economics.

Diamond of Development

When we study successful societies, we can anchor the various contributing factors around four main pillars: leadership, people, culture, and geography. These elements form the four angles of my “Diamond of Development,” with each factor influencing and in turn being influenced by the other three. When all four are favorable, they create a virtuous cycle, with each synergistically reinforcing the other three. Conversely when all elements are negative, there would be a rapid downward spiral.

The importance of leadership is readily apparent, as encapsulated in our traditional wisdom: Endah negeri kerana penghulu (Great country, great leadership!) Leaders are to a country what wings are to a plane; they define and limit the capability and performance. The old double wings were suitable for slow single piston planes but would impose a severe drag on faster jets; they need backswept wings with adjustable leading and trailing ends to adjust the wing shape to effect maximal lift at low speed and minimal drag at high speed. Likewise with leaders; the all-knowing powerful dictator may be best for an emerging society but he would be out of place for an educated sophisticated nation.

As for people, the UNDP declares that people are the real wealth of a nation. As for the crucial interactions between the two, consider that Saddam Hussein could never be elected dog catcher in America. He was lucky to have been caught by the Americans and not the Iraqis. Had he been caught by his own people; he would have been butchered and his corpse desecrated. Saddam’s sadism had spread to the Iraqi people, illustrating my point on the interactions between all factors, in this particular instance, between leader and people.

Culture is society’s DNA (genes); it determines the behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all the other products of human work and thought that we socially transmit to members of our society. Economist Douglass North defines institutions, a component of culture, as the rules of the game, the humanly devised constraints that shape human interactions. Cultures and institutions assure some predictability to our interactions and thus serve to reduce transaction costs.

Of the four factors, only geography is the gift of nature and thus essentially unalterable. A society is either fortunate to be endowed with favorable geographic attributes or it does not. There is not much we can do to alter that reality. The other three are human creations, and thus potentially alterable. While we cannot change our geographic attributes, we can modify our attitudes towards them, which in turn govern our relationship with and how we treat them.

If we treat our coastlines and rivers as sources of pestilence and inherently evil, the place where the hantu laut (sea spirit) and hantu darat (land spirit) are in constant conflict as portrayed by Joseph Conrad’s many Malay novels, then our attitude towards those properties would be negative. Consequently we would not hesitate dumping our garbage there with abandon; we would not care for the ensuing pollution.

We could however, alter our mindset and instead respect and appreciate those geographic attributes. We would then build levees and canals as in the Sacramento delta and south Florida so we could have beautiful marinas, fertile farmlands, and prime real estate. Similarly, while we cannot change the hot humid south, but through air-conditioning and skillful marketing, we can create the desirable Sunbelt.

In desert Las Vegas with less than 10 inches of rain annually, homes sport fountains and swimming pools. Good governance and institutions make that possible. Malaysia has daily downpours, yet its taps are frequently dry; blame bad institutions for that. Milton Friedman once famously remarked that with inept governments and corrupt institutions even sand could be made scarce in Saudi Arabia!

Unitary Versus Systemic Approach

Relating my Diamond of Development to the “Malay problem,” there are two possible approaches: unitary versus systemic. The unitary approach would be to focus on one factor, for example leadership, in the hope that it would pull up the other three. Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., was an example of such a transforming leader; he transformed the Arabs, their culture, and the area’s political geography. The risk with such a single-approach strategy is that we could also end up with a Hitler; he too transformed the German people, their culture, and the geography of Europe.!

Likewise, there are many ready examples of society being transformed by pivotal changes in culture, people, or even geographic events. Malay culture was transformed with the coming of Islam, European colonization, and currently, capitalism and globalization. Islam ended our animist beliefs; it also brought the written culture, and with that, a quantum leap in the intellectual development of our society. Colonization upended our feudalism, ending for example, slavery and indentured labor. The impact of capitalism and globalization is yet to be reckoned.

Cataclysmic geographic events can also have transforming effects on people, culture, and leaders. In his book Guns, Germs. And Steel. The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond theorized that climactic and environmental changes doomed the Norwegians in Greenland and the Easter Islanders; their leaders, people, and culture could not cope with the new physical environmental demands required of them.

Those are the dangers of focusing or depending on changing any one factor alone. A surer and more achievable approach would be of small incremental enhancements targeting all four factors simultaneously.

Elect slightly more competent and less corrupt leaders, provide more education and better health services for your people, tame some of the non-productive and destructive elements of your culture, and have some respect for the environment. These small incremental changes could be readily implemented, and they would reinforce each other and combined, they would produce great synergy.

An equally important consideration is that if we were to make a mistake (inevitably there will be), it would be more readily corrected and its negative consequences more readily contained and hopefully be restrained by all the other elements that are working right.

There is one overriding consideration to my Diamond of Development; it is premised upon the fact that there must be peace. If citizen are at war with each other, there can be no development and the ideas represented by my diamond of development are mute. When people are in turmoil as in war, their primary concern is survival, not development.

Leaning From Others

Lastly, returning to my earlier theme of learning from others, there is much that we can learn from the exemplary society, certainly in the eyes of Muslims, of the first Muslim community in Medinah led by Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w.

Here we had a truly transforming leader; selected no less by Allah. It is instructive what he did first at Medinah. He recognized that he did not have as yet a united community, his followers divided between the native Medinans (al Ansar) and the immigrant Meccans (Muhajireen). Instead of dwelling on their real and potentially divisive differences (tribal, geographic, etc.), he appealed to their commonality, their commitment to the new faith. This is the crucial point. We need leaders who can bring people together not divide us. This is true in Malaysia as in America and elsewhere, as well as today and in the past.

This brings the centrality and assumption of my diamond of development. There must be first peace before there can be any economic development. This was what the prophet emphasized, by appealing to the commonality of the Muhajireens and Ansars.

Once he had his people committed to a common goal, the prophet then addressed the other three elements of my diamond. First he made sure that his followers were educated. He offered his prisoners freedom if they were to teach the Muslims. He also built bazaars so citizens could partake in trade among themselves. He did not charge them for using those facilities. He encouraged them to trade, as indicated by this hadith (approximately translated), it is better to give than to receive a paycheck, meaning, better to be an employer than an employee. That is also the essence of free enterprise and capitalism.

As for the environment, knowing that Medina was at the time wrecked by malaria, he had the swamps drained and advised citizens to cover their water at night to prevent mosquitoes from breeding. Even the minutest element of hygiene did not escape him as when he urged Muslims not to urinate on stagnant water. The prophet essentially addressed the two key determinants as to the quality of people: health and education.

The last point is culture; he removed some of the more odious practices of the Arabs like slavery, female infanticide, and the denigration of women. He did all these mundane but necessary things without waiting for divine revelations. His leadership style was one through personal examples (quadrhat hasanah). He not only told people what to do, he also showed them how.

During this forum I hope that my diamond of development would help you organize your thoughts. I look forward to the discussions. Thank you.


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