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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, March 09, 2011

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 1 of 14)

Longing for A Free Mind (Part 1 of 14)

M. Bakri Musa

[Presented at the Fifth Annual Alif Ba Ta Conference at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, organized by UMNO Club of New York-New Jersey, January 29, 2011.]

[A nation aspiring for greatness needs leaders with free minds; only they are capable of carving new paths. The Pak Turut (me too) leaders we have today, content merely to regurgitate what had been programmed in them, will at best only maintain the status quo. To elect leaders with free minds, citizens too must be free-minded.]

Let me first congratulate Amer Shukri, President of UMNO Club NY-NJ, and Zaid Nabil, President of the Malaysian Students Association here at Stevens, for organizing this Fifth Annual Alif Ba Ta conference. Despite changes in leadership through graduations and the like that are inherent in organizations like yours, you and your team have demonstrated admirable staying power. I applaud you, especially the hard work of the organizing committee, and thank you for inviting me again.

There are other UMNO Clubs much bigger and more established. At one time the UMNO Club of California counted its members in the hundreds, but the best that they could muster was in organizing gatherings to greet visiting UMNO dignitaries. Those were occasions less for the exchange of ideas, more for ambitious leader wannabes to ingratiate themselves to senior party members. So I congratulate you for putting together a substantive program all these years.

I also applaud you for choosing the bioscience and engineering; you could have chosen an easier path. Earlier, Dr. Waleed quoted a hadidth to the effect that someone who removes a thorn from a road is serving Allah, for that simple deed would prevent others from injuring their feet, which could lead to infection and possible amputation.

Take that hadith further. What if you were to build a road? Imagine the immense good you would do, or stated differently, how much more pleased Allah would be! A mother could now bring her sick baby to the hospital faster; that may mean saving a life. Farmers could bring their produce to market easily and thus improve their livelihoods. Then consider the remarkable improvement in our health that is so frequently attributed to the miracles of my profession. In truth it owes more to the marvels of modern civil engineering like central sewer and water treatment plants. Hence my high regards for engineers!

This year’s theme, “Longing for a Free Mind,” is particularly apt. I am assuming that you are not here referring to the free mind mapping software, a necessary clarification as I am speaking at a technology institute.

A nation aspiring for greatness needs leaders with free minds. We can do without the Pak Turuts (“Yes man”) leaders, content merely with echoing and regurgitating what had been programmed in them, encapsulated in their hallowed phrase, Saya menunggu arahan! (I await directives), or the equally servile Kami menurut perentah! (I follow orders). We cannot aspire to Vision 2020, much less greatness, with such leadership. What we need instead are leaders willing and capable of paving new paths. To elect such leaders we need citizens with free minds.

A free mind can best be illustrated by this story of Mullah Nasaruddin, famed for his effective use of ordinary and often personal examples as teaching materials.

He was cursed with having a neighbor who was fond of borrowing items from him and then conveniently forgetting to return them. One day this neighbor came to the Mullah to borrow his donkey. The Mullah, anticipating the request, had earlier locked the animal away in the barn and out of sight. Upon hearing the request, the Mullah confidently replied that his donkey had been taken earlier by his brother. As the disappointed neighbor turned away, he heard the braying of the donkey. Whereupon he turned around and remarked, “I thought you said your donkey was gone!”

To which the Mullah replied, “Do you believe the braying of a donkey over the words of a Mullah?”

If you can accept that at times a donkey can be the bearer of the truth, and a mullah the purveyor of untruth, then you have a free mind. There are many reasons why we continue believing the mullah despite the donkey braying in our face, and we will explore some of those.

This conference will address “The Malay Mind,” “The Mind of a Muslim,” “Minda Mahasiswa” (The Mind of an Undergraduate), and “The Mind of a Future Leader.” I could add the legal mind and the mind of an economist, for example. To me, regardless what minds we are dealing with, it is far more important that they be free.

This conference’s theme could as well be, “Molding A Merdeka Mind.” It sounds even more stirring in our national language, Mengasoh Minda Merdeka! It is certainly more evocative than Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Hegemony), or even Agama, Bangsa, Negara! (Faith, Race, Country!). More importantly, it is also more constructive. We have been politically free since 1957, but our minds are still not free; we remain entrapped in our old ways. It is time we liberate our minds, granting them their own merdeka (freedom).

Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah, better known as HAMKA, described best what a free mind is with his poem, Nikmat Hidup (Life’s Bounty):

Menahan fikiran aku tak mungkin
Menumpul kalam aku tak kuasa.
Merdeka berfikir gagah perkasa
Berani menyebut yang aku yakin.

My translation:

Censoring ideas is not my deal
Nor putting to rest my writing quill.
Fearless are those who dare to think
And put to words their inner being.

I challenge you to pick among our leaders today those who are Merdeka berfikir (free thinking) gagah perkasa (fearless core).

Merdeka berfikir alone, courageous and laudatory as that may be, is not sufficient. You have to articulate and share your thoughts. It is like a tree falling in the forest; with no one to hear it, will there be any sound? More importantly, will anyone know? Thus you must also have the courage to voice your thoughts – berani menyebut. Today, I am sharing mine with you, at least those present here. By writing I will extend my reach, “one person speaking to many,” in the words of Prameodya Ananta Toer, now and forever. Hamka is long gone but his wisdom lives on through his words.

Writing also imposes a certain discipline. You have to gather, organize and then present your thought in a logical and attractive fashion so as to interest your readers. No such restraints exist with talking. Undisciplined, it can readily degenerate into nonproductive “coffee shop talk.” I hope to avoid that today.

My presentation explores the meaning of a free mind and the associated liberating of entrapped ones. As a physician I am used to viewing problems from the perspective of prevention. Thus I will also discuss the dynamics of the entrapped mind so that we would never find ourselves in that state again. I will review some fascinating studies in neuroscience, and the insights gleaned, in so far as they relate to our understanding of the free mind.

I will conclude by citing examples from our legends and history of individuals with free minds and the remarkable impact they have had on our society. In the remote possibility that you may not readily identify with them, I will share examples of fellow students like you who dared to have free minds and carve their own paths, and contrast them to their contemporaries who were only too willing to menurut perentah. I hope you can draw some useful lessons.

I will end with a “Question and Answer” session.

Next: The Meaning of a Free Mind


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