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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, February 24, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #3

Introduction and Overview

A Father’s Query

Growing up in colonial Malaya, my father insisted that his children attend English schools. This was surprising as my parents were Malay school teachers and the country was then in the grip of intense nationalistic fervor, anticipating independence. Malay teachers were at the vanguard of this movement, specifically in UMNO.

In his later years my father would confide to me his reasons. He wanted us, his children, to learn the ways and secrets of the English, and to discover what it was that made them so successful that they could control an empire. What was it about Britain, he wondered, an island half the size of Sumatra that it could produce a race that would control a vast portion of the globe? Why was it that the British who colonized Malaysia and not Malays over Britain?

My father was not the first to ponder such matters.

The American biologist Jared Diamond in his Pulitzer prize-winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, recounted his experience with a tribal chief in Papua New Guinea at the end of the Second World War. At that time the Allied forces were regularly dropping supplies and other “goodies” to the troops and natives on the island. These cargo drops were much anticipated. To the Stone Age natives, these precious gifts were literally falling from heaven.

Their chief Yali, as befitted a true leader, went beyond simple wonderment. In a pensive moment he too wondered why it was that Diamond’s people (that is, White man) who were dropping the cargoes on the natives and not the other way around. The chief may had been in a Stone Age surrounding and culture, but his insight and curiosity were on par with past and modern thinkers and philosophers.

Yali’s question, as Jared referred to, was also on my father’s mind during another major event in his life. During World War II the Japanese briefly colonized Malaya. He could not help but notice the vast difference between the behaviors of the Japanese masters as compared to the British. While the English were very successful in making Malays and others eager to learn and ape their ways, there was no love felt by Malaysians for the Japanese, despite their much-hyped profession of Asian solidarity. To be sure the Japanese were much respected, but that was out of fear and intimidation. Unlike the British, the Japanese were very much hated for their brutal and savage ways. There wasn’t a Malaysian tear shed when they surrendered.

My father wanted to know why these two races, the Japanese and British, would turn out to be very different as masters. Even more important, what was it that made them venture beyond their shores while Malays were content to stay at home. This last point has not always been the case. After all, his father had migrated across the Strait of Malacca from Sumatra. Many in fact ventured far beyond the archipelago, landing on such distant shores as Madagascar and South Africa. Malays back then were famed as seafaring people.

Historians, ancient and modern, have attempted to explain the rise and fall of great civilizations. Unfortunately I am no fan of that discipline, perhaps the result of botched teaching during my high school. History is unfairly stamped on my mind as only dates, persons, and events; a narration of who did what to whom and, of course, when. Rarely is the fundamental question of “Why?” asked. And when it is, the answer would depend very much on one’s (or the historian’s) perspective.

Events of World War II would undoubtedly be interpreted much differently from the current version had the Japanese and Germans won. To the victor goes the privilege of writing history, observed Churchill. This bears emphasis. Today Westerners, that is members of the developed societies, write much of the literature on development. Rightly so, for few would want to hear the views and theories of development propounded by socialists and communists. Theirs is a failed system. We must however, be careful to separate propaganda on the virtues of the West from empirically proven successful strategies. Another useful caution is that what works in the West may not be necessarily be so elsewhere. That however should not be the excuse for us not to study Western ways, for if they are not applicable to our society, then at least we should at least find out why.

A more problematic issue with the study of history is that human societies and conditions change. Thus factors and conditions considered favorable for development in the past may no longer be appropriate today; indeed they may well prove to be obstacles. This caution is necessary in view of fundamentalist Muslims’ obsession to enforce 8th Century laws onto modern society.

A more fruitful pursuit in understanding the fate of societies lies in the sciences, both the social and natural sciences. Science after all attempts to explain phenomena with a view to predict and or alter subsequent events. That essentially is the focus of my enquiry.

Variations in the level of progress occur not only between but also within societies. Having lived in three different countries, I am very much aware of this. In Malaysia we have the Malay/non-Malay dynamics; in Canada, the Francophone and Anglophones; and in America, the Blacks and Hispanics versus Whites. When I hear discussions in America on the lack of Blacks and Hispanics in higher education, all I have to do is substitute Malays for Blacks or Hispanics, and the debates might as well have been in Malaysia.

When I was living in Montreal in the 1970s, the passionate arguments then were on the lack of French-Canadians at McGill University. Those heated discussions eerily echoed the equally impassioned rhetoric of an UMNO Youth gathering. Only the geography and participants were changed, but the dynamics remained remarkably similar.

Malaysia’s Problems In Perspective

During my childhood I was very much aware of the gross inequities between the races in Malaysia. I was also keenly conscious of the racial undertones whenever minor social and economic conflicts arose. Even seemingly innocuous neighborly disputes could quickly escalate into major racial confrontations.

I remember how an innocent and inconsequential labor dispute at Malayan Railway in the late 1950’s quickly degenerated into an ugly racial confrontation, simply because most of the workers were Indians and the managers, Malays. It took the swift action of an economics professor, Ungku Aziz, to prevent that conflict from degenerating. A decade later in May 1969, a boisterous electoral victory parade by a predominantly Chinese party precipitated the nation’s worse race riot.

The successive governments of Malaysia, from the colonial British to the present, have long grappled with the race problems with varying degrees of success. Out of that 1969 national tragedy emerged the New Economic Policy, with its objectives of eradicating poverty and the “identification of race with economic functions.” The dangerous gaps separating the various communities in Malaysia have now narrowed considerably; nonetheless inequities still exist and continue to be a major source of social instability. Malaysia’s problems however, are not unique.

A year after the Malaysian riot and in the opposite end of the globe, I would once again be caught in the maelstrom of another interracial conflict. It was in Montreal, this time between the French- and English-Canadians. Although the number of casualties was nowhere comparable to the Malaysian melee, nonetheless qualitatively, the dynamics were similar.

That Canadian rage erupted when members of the separatist Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) kidnapped a Francophone provincial cabinet minister and the British consul. The diplomat was later released unharmed, but the minister was savagely murdered. That crisis precipitated a civil unrest the likes of which Quebec and Canada had never seen. The old War Measures Act was resurrected and thrust onto Canadians; overnight they saw their cherished freedom taken away. That conflict also saw armed troops marching and heavy tanks rolling down the streets of Montreal. The scenes were reminiscent of a banana republic rather than a modern nation.

Canada, like Malaysia, has come a long way from those ugly days of a generation ago. In many parts of the globe today however, we still see ugly ethnic conflicts, and the participants in each of those disputes insist on the righteousness of their claim and on the uniqueness of their particular positions.

Malaysia has the added problem of its socioeconomic cleavages paralleling racial lines. Again this is not unique. With the massive migrations and arbitrary drawing of political boundaries in the last century, many countries have ethnically and culturally diverse populations, and the attendant inter-communal inequities. Much of the world today is still consumed with irrational ethnic and racial hatred, from Europe (Northern Ireland and the Balkans) to Africa (Nigeria and Rwanda), and Asia (Sri Lanka and Fiji). Thus Malaysia’s experience in dealing with her interracial problems has worldwide relevance.

Canada, like Malaysia, had its own sets of interracial problems. The socioeconomic differences between the French and English there were obvious, at least a generation ago. The province of Quebec may be overwhelmingly French, but signs in that language were practically non-existent in downtown Montreal. The executive suites there were more likely to be filled with a Baker, Smith, or Wilson, rather than a Beauchamp, Dumaine, or Poirier. At least that was the situation back in the 1960’s.

These differences extended beyond the social and economic arena. I remember being perplexed by a case of fever in a young French-Canadian girl. A senior English-Canadian doctor casually suggested that I look at the patient’s teeth and remarked rather crudely that French-Canadians had “rotten teeth.” Sure enough, she indeed had severe cavities and gum disease. Thus even oral pathology follows racial lines. To what extent such differences reflect differing socioeconomic status or merely the function of genetics, diet, or culture is not known.

A decade later in California, I was again struck by the glaring inequities between the different communities. The dynamics were more complex involving Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics. Every so often America’s race problems would explode, as in the Watts riot of 1960s and the Rodney King of 1992. That second eruption followed the acquittal of four white policemen who were caught on videotape senselessly beating up an unarmed black man, Rodney King.

Even when the citizenry of a nation is relatively homogeneous, differences can occur, for example, between regions. Coastal regions of China are more developed and readily adopt free enterprise, while its central regions remain mired in totalitarianism. And conflicts between the two occur regularly.

Thus the study of how societies develop is relevant to understanding inequities not only within but also between nations.

Next: A Discussion on Causation


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