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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, August 05, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #115

Chapter 17: Granting Malaysians Their Merdeka

Dismantling the Feudal Culture

One would expect that since the sultans are secure with their affluence through generous civil allowances and other privileges, they would be spared the obsession of acquiring further wealth. Far from it! They are the first to hog the public trough. The sultans still consider public land their personal fiefdom. These sultans have also become even more enterprising, shamelessly selling royal titles. Datukships can now be had for a mere RM200,000. They are prostituting the institution of royalty. The reason for this greed is that they are still stuck in the mindset of the material phase.

Contrast the behaviors of the Malay royalty class to its European counterpart. Even during medieval times the European royalty and aristocrats had a sense of philanthropy. They were patrons of the arts and regularly took under their wings talented musicians and artists. Mozart, Michelangelo and others had generous royal patrons.

Such philanthropy is notably absent among Malay sultans and nobility. This is surprising as the sultans are titular heads of Islam, and charity is one of the five pillars of the faith, ahead of fasting and the Hajj. One would expect the sultans to lead with their philanthropy. Not so! It is doubtful whether they even pay their mandatory zakat (tithe). There is no evidence of any waning of this greed as these sultans continue to squat on the apex of the special privileges heap. As they are role models, it is no surprise that such crass materialism and lack of altruism and public charity permeate the larger society.

Such philanthropy is also noticeably absent among the Chinese, whether Malaysian, Singapore, or the Red China variety.

Malays pay homage to their sultans like Hindus to their deities, with offerings of tributes, services, and valuables. In days of yore, it was quite common to see the entire family’s wealth from prized buffaloes to premium harvest rice offered to the sultans while the peasant’s family was left destitute. Today’s sultans are continuing this acquisitive avarice by grabbing the state’s modern offerings like public lands, contracts, and concessions. They feel affronted when the chief minister would not accede to their voracious greed.

The royalty is an expensive burden, what with their generous civil allowances extending to their vast extended families and assorted royal hangers on. Then there are their expensive state-supplied toys like palaces and fleets of Rolls Royces. The far greater burden, and more difficult to remove, is the attendant nonproductive mindset and culture. Among others, this breeds the “Sultan Syndrome,” of senior officials expecting to be treated regally, be adulated, and be served with offerings and tributes. Real work is for their subordinates.

Getting rid of the sultans as some republican-minded Malays are advocating would not solve the problem unless we also discard the accompanying feudal mindset of blind obedience and personal loyalty. Otherwise, what we would get instead are non-royal leaders assuming the role of sultans.

Indonesia got rid of its many sultans; that did not help the country’s development. In fact, it made it worse, with Sukarno and his henchmen replacing the royal household. Sukarno declared himself “President for Life,” just like the sultans. When Mahathir tried to clip the powers of the sultans in the 1980s and 90s, he had considerable opposition. The general fear was that Malays would be substituting one sultan for another, and a non-royal one at that.

More important than merely getting rid of the sultans is to change the feudal mindset and culture associated with royalty. Were this to be done suddenly, it would be socially disruptive and destabilizing. When Mahathir attempted to clip the powers of the royalty, he precipitated an unnecessary constitutional crisis that paralyzed the nation and deeply divided Malays.

More effective and enduring would be to initiate incremental changes that would not be disruptive. First would be to impress upon leaders and followers alike that sultans are ordinary mortals and thus subject to all the human foibles and weaknesses. Once this concept is accepted, then the other ideas would follow easily. One would be that these sultans and leaders be answerable to the citizens and to the law. Being answerable means being subjected to scrutiny. Ascension to the throne or other leadership positions entails the assumption of certain responsibilities.

Recently the editor of Malaysia-Today posted an exposé of corruption in the Negri Sembilan royal family.2 The incensed Yang Di Pertuan Besar (Sultan) pressured the police to arrest its editor, Raja Petra Kamarudin, who happens to be a member of the neighboring (Selangor) royal family. The remarkable aspect to the whole episode was the fact that the series was even published in the first place. It marked a significant cultural transformation for Malays, the beginning (I hope) of our emancipation from feudalism. I would give Raja Petra as much credit as Mahathir in disabusing the Malay masses of their near-divine reverence for their sultans.

The Japanese used to think of their emperor as god, but General Mac Arthur successfully disabused them of their collective delusion during the American Occupation following World War II.3 He did it not by humiliating the emperor or stripping him of his dignity. Indeed, Mac Arthur was alone in opposing charging the emperor for war crimes, believing that he could use the emperor as an instrument to effect major cultural change on the Japanese. Mac Arthur was right, and he did it through subtle but symbolically powerful signals. For example, on their first meeting Mac Arthur made the emperor come to him at the American embassy, and not have the General go to the palace. At the embassy the emperor had to hand his top hat to an aide, just like any other visitor. In their subsequent official portrait together, there was Mac Arthur standing in his army khaki fatigues without a tie and with his hands clasped on his hips, towering beside the diminutive Hirohito. The not-so-subtle message conveyed by their body language was unmistakable.

To reinforce the message further, Mac Arthur made the emperor tour the country to disavow that he was the descendent of the Sun Goddess. Mac Arthur also made sure that the Emperor’s motorcade stopped at all red traffic lights. The message to the Japanese people was clear: even the mightiest emperor had to obey the lowly traffic laws of the country. It was through such small gestures and symbolisms that Mac Arthur was able to effect profound cultural changes upon Japanese society, illustrating my earlier point of the bilateral and mutually reinforcing interactions between culture and leader.

What a supreme irony that Mac Arthur, a gaijin (literally, foreign barbarian) who knew next to nothing about Japan was able to transform its society and culture, while Mahathir, locally born and bred, could not change his own people! If the Japanese and Irish (described earlier) could be changed culturally, so could the Malays. Indeed Malays had shown remarkable capacity to undertake momentous cultural changes in the past. Under Datuk Onn, we prevailed over the British on the Malayan Union issue. With the proper leadership, Malays could undergo yet another transformation, and do it not in the divisive and confrontational ways a la Mahathir but through the Mac Arthur manner, incrementally through the effective use of powerful symbols and gestures.

To nudge Malays out of our collective feudal mentality and excessive deference to the sultans, we could begin by treating them as mere mortals. Start with making sure that they obey traffic laws and strip them of their outriders, except on ceremonial occasions. If they run the red light or park in “No Parking” zones, ticket them. If the Prime Minister could be handed speeding tickets, so could the sultans. Do away with the elaborate ceremonies and get rid of the kompang drummers and petal throwers. If it is too hot and sunny, let the sultans and ministers carry their own umbrellas. Or wear hats!

One positive consequence to the political squabble between Abdullah Badawi and his immediate predecessor that reached its height by late 2006 is this. Mahathir had effectively broken down the entrenched cultural taboo against criticizing the leadership. It is ironic that Mahathir would make one of his greatest contributions only after he retired.

To be sure, Mahahitr was only one, though the critical, factor. Abdullah’s own glaring ineptness contributed greatly; he practically invited the derisions and scathing criticisms. Then there was the growth of the Internet and alternative media, fueled by the rapidly declining credibility of the mainstream papers that are the establishment’s remaining supporters.

It is upon such small almost imperceptible measures are great changes effected. We need to initiate more of them if Malaysia were to catapult into the next phase of development.

Next: Transitioning to the Creative Phase


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