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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, May 04, 2011

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 9 of 14)

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 9 of 14)

[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.]

Free Minds in Our Legends and History

In Sulalatus Salatin (Malay Annals) there is the story of Temasek (old Singapore) being regularly invaded by a school of flying swordfish. Hundreds fell victim, impaled by the sharp snouts of the fish. All efforts at combating this piscine scourge were unsuccessful.

That is, until a young boy suggested to the sultan to plant a row of banana stems along the shore. In that way, Hang Nadim told the sultan, when those flying fish darted onshore, they would be impaled on the soft stems.

The scheme worked wonderfully well, and the pleased sultan decided to honor the young man. The sultan’s advisors however, had second thoughts. If that youth could dream up such a brilliant scheme at a young age, they convinced the sultan, imagine what else would he think of later as an adult. Sensing a future threat, the sultan had Hang Nadim executed instead. Imagine!

That young man certainly had a free mind. He could, to borrow the current cliché, think outside the box. He was certainly not at all shy in telling the sultan what to do. In a deeply feudal society, as Malay society was then (still is), that took great courage.

That boy paid dearly for his courage and free-mindedness. Tragic as that is, the far greater tragedy is borne by society. Executing that young man not only deprives the society of its brightest talent, potentially its future Munshi Abdullah or Datuk Onn, but also sends a clear message that it is does not pay – in fact downright dangerous – to be innovative or original. Such a society can never aspire to greatness. That is a very steep price.

Lest you might conclude that this malady is peculiar only to Malay sultans, let me take you back to Czarist Russia. Legend has it that after the impressive St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square was built, Ivan the Terrible had the architect blinded lest he would recreate another rivaling masterpiece. In China, the First Qin Emperor had all the workers of his fantastically elaborate tomb killed lest they might reveal its secrets!

Of the three – Russian czars, Chinese emperors, and Malay sultans – only Malay sultans still exist. I let you decide whether that is a compliment for the sultans or an indictment of our society.

If you kill off all your bright talents, a generation or two later you would have a society of dumbbells. When the Moguls invaded the Muslim heartland, the first thing they did was to kill off the intellectuals and luminaries, effectively decapitating that society and culture. Then the Moguls could easily colonize and subjugate the rest.

The sultan’s treatment of Hang Nadim reminded me of the ancient practices of the Mayans where they sacrificed their most beautiful virgins by throwing them into the dungeon to please the Gods. A few generations later and all the babies in the community were ugly, as the gorgeous potential mothers had been sacrificed.

In Hikayat Hang Tuah (The Legend of Hang Tuah) we have the two protagonists in the service of the sultan. One is Hang Tuah, the hero and eponymous legend. Even the name is auspicious; Tuah, the blessed one! In contrast, his nemesis Hang Jebat rhymes with yang jahat, the sinister one.

The legend began in childhood with the pair, together with another three, bonding as brothers. Later they were hulubalangs in the service of the sultan, in the manner of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, minus the equality implied by the round table. Hang Tuah, being numero uno, took his loyalty to the sultan to extremes, even lying on his behalf to deceive a young princess. Soon however, palace intrigue took over and Tuah was charged with treason and summarily sentenced to death by the sultan.

The sultan replaced Tuah with Jebat. On discovering the grave injustice perpetrated on his dear friend, Jebat relentlessly pursued the guilty parties. Threatened, the sultan summoned his chief minister who suggested that the sultan recall Hang Tuah whom the minister had secretly protected. Tuah, ever loyal to his sultan despite the earlier death sentence, returned to protect him. The climax had the two childhood buddies battling it out in a duel, with Tuah killing Jebat.

The conventional wisdom has Tuah as the hero, ready to defend the sultan, right or wrong. The free-minded thinker Kassim Ahmad, on re-examining the legend, concluded otherwise. Tuah, far from being the hero, is the archetypical palace sycophant willing to kill his dear childhood friend in order to regain the sultan’s favor, even that of an unjust sultan. Jebat is the genuine hero, willingly sacrificing his life to right a gross injustice. Where Tuah is loyal to the person of the sultan; Jebat is loyal to the principle of justice.

Tuah conveniently wraps his opportunist core in the well worn but expedient cloak of loyalty. Today our society is plagued with hordes of Hang Tuahs; what we sorely lack are leaders in the mold of Hang Jebat.

Earlier I mentioned the pivotal role of Datuk Onn in derailing the Malayan Union. He was a senior civil servant at the time, a significant and rare achievement for a native. Had he been a Hang Tuah, ever loyal to the British, there would be no limit to the height of his achievement, perhaps becoming the first native Governor of a Malayan Union.

Instead, like Jebat, Onn saw the grave injustice perpetrated upon Malays by the colonialists in cahoots with the sultans. He heard the braying of the donkey, the sultans selling out our country. He saw them repeating what their brother Sultan of Johor did with Singapore 127 years earlier.

The pathetic aspect of the Malayan Union treaty, like the earlier ceding of Singapore, was how easy those sultans capitulated. Sir Harold MacMichael, the British point man, took only a few months to secure the agreement, with not a whimper of protest. Some of the sultans took only a day or two to ratify the agreement. The few who had flashes of courage quickly backed down under threat of being replaced or prosecuted for presumed collaboration with the Japanese during the war.

It turned out that our sultans – Allah’s representatives on earth – too menurut arahan, not from Him however, but from Sir Harold. Thanks to Datuk Onn, the Union treaty was rescinded just two months shy of its second anniversary. Onn had taken on the mighty Brits and prevailed, with no help from the sultans! He did it without being biadap (treasonous) or resorting to armed insurrections.

It is ironic that Onn would be instrumental in this, for earlier the Sultan of Johor, Onn’s own ruler, had banished him for daring to criticize the sultan. If Onn had been concerned with settling old scores, and at the same time endear himself to the British, he would let the treaty be, and those sultans would today be reduced to the status of the Sultan of Sulu, or suffer the fate of the Chinese emperors and Russian czars.

Further back there was Munshi Abdullah. Today he is held in low esteem and dismissed as a brown Mat Salleh by revisionist historians and self-proclaimed champions of our race. They even ridicule his “impure” Malay heritage. These nationalists are perturbed that Abdullah free-mindedness let him collaborate with the colonialists. He even translated the bible!

To Munshi Abdullah however, working with the colonialists meant the opportunity to expand his intellectual horizon and learn the advances of the West. Most of all he wanted to understand what made the British tick. When they invited him to visit a warship, he was not a mere casual tourist. He recorded his experiences, complete with drawings of the contraption, and then challenged his readers to wonder how it was that British minds could invent such awesome machines. Today, more than a century and a half later, we are still benefiting from his writings and wisdom. As for the sultan at the time, we do not remember his name.

Hang Jebat and Hang Nadim are but characters in our legends, but the chronicles of their exploits serve as eternal lessons. Munshi Abdullah and Datuk Onn were giants in our history, but being technology students, you may not have heard of or find them interesting. So permit me to cite a contemporary figure.

Many of you know of Ungku Aziz, a man of many firsts. I will not enumerate them as they are not pertinent to my story. To me, he is a man whose insight on rural (and thus Malay) poverty is unmatched. Equally unmatched is our leaders’ inability or unwillingness to tap his vast expertise.

I have not been privileged to meet this eminent economist. My first introduction to him was as a secondary school student in the late 1950s visiting the University of Malaya campus. There was a lull in our schedule and we were let loose in the library. Among the stacks of books there was one that attracted my attention, a thick volume, “The Fragmentation of Estates.” On it was the author’s name, “Ungku A. Aziz.”

What drew my attention was of course the author’s name. In those days it was rare to see a Malay name attached to a book, except perhaps some trashy novels on jinns and hookers. Even though I did not understand a word in the book, nonetheless it made a huge impression on me. Here I was a high school student; I had difficulty even reading my textbooks, and they were considerably thinner. Yet there was this thick volume on a substantive topic written by a Malay. It inspired me! I wondered whether someday I too could have my name appended to a book.

Unlike others who are content merely with cataloging the ills of Malay society and then dredging up old ugly stereotypes to “explain” our backwardness, Ungku Aziz approached the problem scientifically, meaning, empirically. He actually studied poor rural Malay families, from measuring the heights and weights of their children (an indicator of nutritional status and thus economic level) to the number of sarongs per household – his famous “sarong index” of rural poverty.

One of his studies debunked the view widely held (then as well as now, and not just by non-Malays) that Malays do not save or respond to modern economic incentives. Indeed a casual observer would conclude similarly, seeing the small number of accounts in financial institutions held by Malays. When the British tried increasing the interest rates of postal savings accounts to encourage Malays to save, our folks did not respond.

In his studies Ungku Aziz discovered that on the contrary, Malays were indeed diligent savers as attested by the ubiquitous bamboo tabongs in Malay homes. We saved for weddings and of course for a pilgrimage to Mecca, the aspiration of all Muslims. However we did not use savings institutions because of our religious prohibitions against interest earnings.

It is a tribute to the genius of Ungku Aziz that he not only identified the problem correctly (the key towards solving it) but went on to create institutions that would cater to the specific needs of Malays. Thus was born Tabung Haji, a mutual fund-like financial institution that takes in Malay savings, especially from rural areas, and invest them in halal enterprises (meaning, no casinos and breweries). The returns on such investments were rightly labeled as fa’edah (dividends) and not bunga (interests), thus taking care of our religious sensitivities.

Today Tabung Haji is one of the largest financial institutions in Southeast Asia, a tribute to the brilliance of one man, one whose mind was not trapped by conventional wisdom.

Today we have many more Malay economists, some with impressive doctorates from elite universities. Thus you would expect a quantum leap in the number of innovations like Tabung Haji to cater to our special and specific needs. Alas that is not so. Instead what we have are a plethora of Government-linked Companies more adept at sucking precious public funds and then squandering them.

Even Tabung Haji has not demonstrated any innovation since its inception. No one has carried the ball forward. I would have thought those eminently trained economists that Prime Minister Najib brags about being on his team could expand Tabung’s reach, like catering for Muslims in the region or offering services to our entrepreneurs. As you can see, impressive academic qualifications alone do not equal or signal free and innovative minds.

Ungku Aziz is still alive, but I reckon few of you would recognize his name much less his accomplishments. That reveals more about our society than about the man.

Next: Free Minds, Free Individuals


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Menurut Andaya (2002), Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat dan Hang Kasturi adalah pemimpin ulung kaum Orang Asli. Kekuasaan Orang Asli dalam pemerintahan Melaka serta kerajaan-kerajaan melayu yang lain mengalami kemerosotan dengan kematian ketiga-tiga tokoh ini. Pendapat ini dipetik dari Pagan Races of the Malay Peninsula, Macmillan, London 1906 karangan Skeat, W.William and C.O. Blagden.

Andaya juga memetik pendapat Juli Edo, seorang ahli antropologi dari etnik Semai yang mengatakan bahawa Hang Tuah dan Hang Jebat adalah Orang Asli. Hang Tuah dan keluarganya berpindah ke Hulu Perak selepas kematian Hang Jebat.

2:31 AM  

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