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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, September 18, 2011

A Whiff Of His Father's Leadership

A Whiff of His Father’s Leadership
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

In announcing the repeal of the Internal Security Act and other repressive laws, Prime Minister Najib Razak secures for himself an enshrined spot in Malaysian history.

Of the many thoughtful comments on Najib’s historic announcement, the one that struck at the heart of the issue was that by former Mufti of Perlis, Dr. Asri Zainul Abidin. He declared, “The ISA is an un-Islamic law. It infringes [upon] individual rights and can be easily misused by leaders, so repealing it was a very Islamic move.” Amen!

“Najib’s announcement,” Asri continued, “is more valuable than any bonus payment or salary increase because repealing the ISA means the restoration of human rights … which is more valuable than money.” That is putting things in their proper perspective.

I disagree however, with the Mufti’s characterization of Najib’s move as a “gift” to the people. When someone robs you of something and then returns it, that is no gift, merely restoring what is rightly yours. The ISA and other restrictive laws rob us of our precious possession, our freedom. That is Allah’s gift to us, as enshrined in the Koran. It is not for mere mortals, no matter how exalted their earthly positions, to tamper.

Nonetheless I do hear the Mufti. Good Muslims ought to be grateful for their blessings, however small. I want to be a good Muslim, and Najib’s announcement is a huge blessing, so I am very grateful. Alham dulillah! Praise be to Allah!

Missing the Islamic Visuals

Najib and his policymakers must have deliberated for some time. Perhaps it was not a coincidence that only a week earlier Najib’s younger brother, the head of a GLC bank, intimated the need for Malaysia to change lest it risks a Middle East type of upheaval. Significantly, he made it at the Malaysia-China Trade Investment Conference, but more on China shortly.

Pursuing the religious theme, I was surprised that Najib and his advisors did not choose an occasion with some Islamic symbolism to make his momentous announcement.

Not that there was anything wrong with choosing Malaysia Day. However, we just completed Ramadan only a fortnight ago. Surely Najib had decided then. Imagine if he had announced it on Hari Raya, which also coincided (more or less) with Merdeka Day. What better way to demonstrate and acknowledge the special blessings of Ramadan and live its spirit, as well as fulfill the aspirations of merdeka – freedom! Ramadan is after all about remembrance and return – remembrance on the origin of Islam and return to its essence, in Eboo Patel’s pithy phrase.

When Islam was revealed, it emancipated the Arabs from their Age of Jahiliyiah (ignorance); likewise, getting rid of the ISA would emancipate Malaysians, lifting us from our Age of Fear. As for the essence of Islam, our faith commands us to do good and forbid evil. Getting rid of ISA is getting rid of evil; it cannot be more Islamic than that!

Imagine the powerful symbolic impact globally had Najib made the announcement at the end of Ramadan, coming as it was only a few days before the tenth anniversary of the horrible 9-11, and with it the inevitable hysteria of Islamophobia. Imagine the good that would do to the cause as well as image of Islam! One Muslim country bravely discarding its antiquated repressive laws, and doing so not in response to mass demonstrations or civil disobediences but as a normal turn of events. The contrast with America’s renewed commitment to its Patriot Act and the Guantanamo detention camp could not be starker.

Speaking of image, had I been the administration’s public relations consultant, I would have arranged with the announcement a simultaneous release of some ISA prisoners. I would have alerted the news media so they could station their journalists and cameras outside the gate of Kamunting prison.

Imagine the stunning and symbolic visuals! While Najib was making his announcement, the prisoners would emerge one by one into the arms of their eagerly awaiting loved ones. If there were to be a mosque nearby, I would superimpose the call of Azzan to the visuals. I would also have the producer put on a split screen; on one side would be the Prime Minister making his solemn announcement; on the other, the prisoners with their families joyously celebrating their freedom, with the takbir (affirmation to the greatness of Allah) superimposed as the background soundtrack.

I cannot imagine a more powerful symbolism. Those tapes would also be great campaign materials!

The Najib Administration forks out tens of millions to foreign consultants in an effort to spruce up its image. Alas those “documentaries” that supposedly portrayed Malaysia in good light, as well as the many “interviews” Najib landed on the international media, all turned out to be unmitigated fiascos. Those “journalists” and “interviewers” were nothing more than hired hacks.

Yet when a rare and splendid opportunity arose as with the recent announcement, those highly paid public relations pros missed it! Perhaps that should not be a surprise. After all they are all foreigners and non-Muslims to boot; they could not possibly pick up on the Islamic nuances I alluded to earlier. However, their fumbling on the international stage where they are supposedly the experts cannot be readily excused. There is no justification for their lack of professionalism, if not downright unethical behaviors there.

As can be seen, a good policy is the best PR. Notice the favorable comments locally as well as in respected foreign media to Najib’s latest initiative, and it did not cost the government a ringgit to get them! Focus on crafting enlightened policies, and the favorable publicity would ensue. Even if you do not get any, a good policy is reward in itself. Your people will be grateful for it.

A Whiff Of His Father

In committing to repeal the ISA, Najib did something no other prime ministers before him had dared even to contemplate. And Najib had some mighty impressive predecessors. In so doing, Najib also demonstrated a whiff of his late father’s great leadership qualities.

The late Tun Razak did not hesitate to suspend parliament following the May 1969 race riots. Despite the howling protests at home and abroad, Razak was undeterred for he had a crucial job to do; restore peace and stability to a nation shocked by the horrors of that tragedy. And may Allah bless his soul, he accomplished his mission in short order.

To those who would belittle that achievement, let me remind them that the 1969 riot coincided with the flare ups of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. While Malaysians have been enjoying peace for the past four decades, those folks in Northern Ireland are still busy settling their deadly scores.

To this day, Tun Razak remained unique in being the only leader in the world who grabbed power during a national emergency to pursue a much needed critical goal, and then willingly gave that power up once he completed his mission. No other leader could claim that. On the contrary, history is filled with leaders who had to be pushed or dragged out, or worse. Libya’s Gaddafi and Syria’s Assad are only the latest examples.

I am not concerned with how Najib arrived at his decision; I am focused only on the decision. There is no shortage of skeptics out there, and they are not without their reasons. After all Najib’s flip-flopping rivals that of his immediate predecessor.

Even if those skeptics were to be proven right later, there would be no turning back. Najib has clearly declared his niat (intention) to repeal the ISA. In Islam, niat is what counts. We declare our niat before we pray, fast, give zakat or undertake the Hajj. If Najib fails to live up to his Nawaitu, then he has to answer not only to his Maker on the Day of Judgment but also more practically, to his political makers – the voters – right here on earth and now, as in the next election.

Najib’s Nixon-in-China Moment

Najib’s declaration last Wednesday reminded me of Nixon’s pioneering 1972 trip to China. It took another seven years before America would send its first Ambassador to Beijing. Today, over 30 years later, we wondered why on earth it took America so long to recognize the obvious reality of this most populous nation. Regardless, America, China, and the world are now better for it.

Nixon basked on the glory of his China trip and went on to win a landslide for his second term. Alas that triumph proved short-lived, for he was soon forced out of his presidency in shame on matters unrelated to his China initiative. Nonetheless his trailblazing China moment retained its luster in an otherwise blemished legacy.

If Najib’s Malaysia Day niat proves to be just that and nothing more, well, like Nixon, at least he will have that as his legacy, and only that. However, if it proves to be ikhlas (sincere) and only his first step, with many more courageous moves ahead, then greatness awaits him, as well as Malaysia.


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