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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.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Imagining A Different Future

Excerpt #3:  Imagining A Different Future
M. Bakri Musa

Much is at stake for Malays. Only those lulled by Hang Tuah’s blustery Takkan Melayu hilang di dunia (Malays will never be lost from this world) would pretend otherwise. History is replete with examples of once great civilizations now reduced to footnotes. At best they are but objects of tourists’ curiosities, as with the Mayans.

            It is unlikely for Malay civilization to disappear; there are nearly a quarter billion of us in the greater Nusantara world of Southeast Asia. There is however, a fate far worse, and that is for Malaysia to be developed but with Malays shunted aside, reduced to performing exotic songs and dances for tourists.

            There are about 17 million Malays in Malaysia, comparable to the population of the Netherlands. Their colonial record excluded, the Dutch should be our inspiration of what a population of 17 million could achieve.

            Consider Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest port. One expects that title to go to a port in Britain, Germany, or Russia. Then consider the following famous brands:  Shell (petroleum), Phillips (electronics), Unilever (consumer goods), Heineken (beer), and ING (financial services). Those are all Dutch companies.

            Hosts of eminent organizations like the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice are headquarted in the Netherlands. More remarkable is this. That country is behind only America and France in agricultural exports, despite a quarter of its land being below sea level!

            Compare that to Malays and Malaysia. Malays are in political control; non-Malays cannot challenge that; it is a demographic reality. We have a land mass ten times that of the Netherlands, and none of it underwater, except when it rains and our rivers get clogged with pollution. Then it seems the entire country is underwater, paralyzed and gasping for air.

            Imagine if we could achieve even a tenth of what the Dutch have done! That should be our goal and inspiration, not endless reciting of Hang Tuah’s immortal words or the incessant hollering of Ketuanan Melayu.

            We are being hoodwinked by the government’s glossy publications and our leaders’ rosy accounts. Take the “Malaysian Quality of Life 2004 Report” produced by the Prime Minister’s Department. At 113 pages, it is full of glossy pictures of well-trimmed suburban neighborhoods, neat kampong houses, and of course the iconic Petronas Towers. There is also a picture of earnest executives engaged in videoconferencing, highlighting the latest technology gizmo.

            The cover features the responsible minister, Mustapa Mohamed, beaming against the backdrop of a lush, luxurious golf course. That image reveals more of the truth, perhaps unintended; the golf course is exactly where you are likely to find these ministers.

            Visit the minister’s kampong in Jeli, Kelantan, and the reality would be far different. I have no data specific on Jeli but a recent study of Pulau Redong and Pulau Perhentian, islands off Trengganu, would shock anyone. A fifth of the villagers have no formal education; half only primary level. This in 2011! Their average income is less than what Indonesian maids earn. As a needless reminder, those villagers are Malays.

            More shocking and reflective of the malaise, two-thirds of the respondents expect “little” or “no change.” They have given up hope. So much for UMNO’s grandiose promises on “protecting and enhancing” the position of Malays!

            When those high-flying UMNO operatives visit the east coast they lodge at the exclusive Chinese-owned Berjaya Resort, with taxpayers footing the bill. There they could partake in video conferencing. For the islanders however, fewer than four percent have Internet access. There is a thriving tourism industry but those jobs are out of reach to the residents for lack of skills and education.

            Those islanders’ world is a universe away from that of their fellow Bumiputras like Women Affairs Minister Sharizat Jalil with her ultra-luxury condos courtesy of hefty Bumiputra discounts and generous “soft” government loans.

            Tun Razak’s New Economic Policy, Mahathir’s Vision 2020, and now Najib’s 1-Malaysia all have the same aspiration of turning Malaysia into a developed nation. For Malaysia to be developed however, we must first develop its biggest demographic group – Malays. So long as Malays remain backward, so will Malaysia. Tun Razak’s NEP recognized this central reality. Vision 2020 and 1-Malaysia are eerily silent on it.

            Despite this glaring omission, Vision 2020 caught on, Mahathir’s domineering personality snuffing out potential criticisms, at least while he was in power. Najib is not so blessed personality-wise; hence his difficulty selling his 1-Malaysia even to his party members.

            Solving Malaysia’s problems would necessitate us to first address those of the Malays. That is the focus of my commentaries. The accepted assumption is that by solving Malaysia’s problems, those of the Malays would automatically be resolved, the rising tide lifting all boats. Less appreciated is that a rising tide lifts only those boats that are free to float. Those trapped under low bridges or with short anchor rode would be swamped. For a rising tide to be a benefit and not a threat we must first ensure that all boats are free to float; otherwise they would be doomed.

            Liberating the Malay mind is equivalent to freeing our prahus, of giving them adequate anchor lines or moving them away from under bridges and other encumbrances. Today there are just too many Malay boats that are being hampered. We must first free them; otherwise the rising tide would do them no favor. It would only swamp them.

This essay is adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2013

May 24, 2015
Next week:  Excerpt #4:  The Curse of Our Obsession with Politics

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Changing The Malay Narrative

Excerpt #2:  Changing the Malay Narrative
M. Bakri Musa

The colonials imposed upon us and the world their narrative of “the lazy native.” They also spun an equally fictional one for themselves – the superiority of the white man. Both myths were needed to justify their deeds.

            The Japanese shattered that second myth. The sight of the “superior” white men hightailing it, chased by the Japanese on their sardine can-made bicycles, emboldened Malays to take on the hitherto-considered mighty British. That led to our merdeka. As for the first myth, that too would have been busted had the Japanese Occupation lasted longer. There were no lazy natives during the Occupation; the Japanese made sure of that.

            After merdeka, in an ironic twist we substituted our own equally fictional narrative of ourselves. This one, not surprisingly, puts us at the polar opposite of the ‘lazy native.’ We now view ourselves as the privileged “sons of the soil” (Bumiputra). With that we declare our inherent superiority, taking a leaf from the colonials. Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony) is but the latest incarnation of this new narrative.

            Alas, while we may have changed our story, the reality remains the same; we are merely trading one mental coconut shell for another. That is no liberation.

            Like all good fiction, there is just enough truth laced with an exuberance of artistic license to both the old colonial narrative of the lazy native as well as that of our new privileged ‘sons-of-the-soil.’ Also like all good stories, there is an underlying purpose to such narratives, apart from their being good yarns. Discerning that would require us to undertake some introspection and even greater critical analysis.

            The colonialists’ myths of the lazy native and noblesse oblige justified their taking over our country and our rich resources. It also justified their bringing in hordes of indentured labor from India and China. The colonials needed such a narrative to sooth their collective conscience. They further assuaged it by calling us “nature’s gentlemen,” a term only slightly less condescending than “noble savages.”

            What purpose would our narrative of Ketuanan Melayu serve? It is good fiction, as judged by its wide acceptance, much like a “good” dime novel has wide readership. Also like a good novel, this Ketuanan Melayu myth has just enough element of truth to it. We Malays are indeed “natives” of Malaysia; at least we have a better claim to that than the Anglo Saxons have of Australia.

            Perhaps this narrative of Ketuanan Melayu, like those Harlequin novels and soap operas, serves to encourage escapism into a fantasy world. If that were so, the question remains as to what purpose.

            We would not be far wrong if we were to, as the pundits put it, follow the money. Just as those dime novels and soap operas make tons of money for their publishers and producers, so too our narrative of Ketuanan Melayu for its perpetrators.

            It is not coincidental that the shrillest proponents of Ketuanan Melayu are also the most privileged of Malays – the UMNO Putras. These are the ones with palatial bungalows, trophy wives, and children in private schools, all made possible through political patronages, “Approve Permits,” and outright corruption.

            All myths eventually get punctured. That of the lazy native busted under its own weight. Indications are that this has already begun with Ketuanan Melayu. A Malay has difficulty reveling in his exalted privileged son-of-the-soil status around KLCC; he has difficulty finding a restaurant that would serve him rendang.

            Champions of Ketuanan Melayu too sense this impending implosion; hence their preoccupation with creating new conspiracies to bedevil us. First was the hantu of globalization and capitalism. As that did not scare us enough, they concocted hantu pendatang (of immigrants). Meanwhile we are being ensnared by the hantu of religious extremism.

            Humans love a good story; indeed we need it. That also reflects how our brain works. Our mind creates a narrative of ourselves and of the universe, and our place within it. Our mind works hard to make that story consistent. When new information intrudes that does not fit our existing narrative, our brain re-interprets the new information to make it conform. When our version of the world is far detached from reality, we become delusional. That is schizophrenia, a serious mental malady.

            Another feature of the brain that rivals its ability to edit non-conforming information is its tendency to see the whole instead of the parts; hence the dominance of “framing.”

            Just like a portrait can look very different depending on the frame, likewise our perception of reality based on our mental frame. We pick a course of action when it is framed as having an 80 percent chance of success over one with 20 percent chance of failure, despite both expressing the same thing. We drive across town to “save” a dollar even if we have to spend more on getting there.

            Society too can be imprisoned by this framing effect. We Malays framed our dilemmas as one of Ketuanan Melayu instead of our lack of competitiveness, as it should be. All of our subsequent actions are thus “framed” by this mindset.

            This obsession with Ketuanan Melayu and the various hantus distracts us from recognizing and facing our real existential threats – our laggardness in economics, education and other arenas, as well as our deepening polarization and increasing inequities within our community. Intra-racial inequities and polarization worry me more than the inter-racial variety; I fear less another May 1969, more a Malay civil war.

            We also risk being cast aside by global currents. Even once xenophobic China is now embracing globalization and capitalism, to the benefit of its people. In contrast, our obsession with religion puts us right in the target of its extremist elements, turning Malaysia into another Iran or Afghanistan.

            We need a new narrative, one that reflects our true nature and the world we live in. If we were to do so, our actions would be more productive and less disruptive. Even if our new story were to have some fanciful elements, with an open mind, associated humility, and willingness to learn, we could tweak and re-edit it to conform to reality.

            That is what a free mind does. With a closed mind our narrative would calcify, detaching us from reality. We would then distort reality to make it conform to our warped view.

            Liberate the Malay mind, and we topple our coconut shell. Information (freer access to it), education (liberal and broad-based, with competence in science and mathematics), and engagement in trade and commerce (capitalism – the genuine, not the ersatz or rent-seeking variety) are the proven tools to topple our coconut shell and prepare us for the wonderful open world.

            Liberate the Malay mind and those hantus would be exposed for what they are, figments of our wild imagination. A free mind turns crises into opportunities. Liberate the Malay mind and we will re-frame our dilemmas. Liberate our minds and we liberate our world.

            Begin by acknowledging the forces that have kept and are keeping our minds closed. Foremost are the myriad intrusive and repressive rules, the mother of which is the Internal Security Act. Those are instruments of oppression, not liberation. Then there are our schools and universities, intent on indoctrinating rather than educating our young. More entrenched is the corruption of our cultural values where respect for leaders is mistaken as a license for them to indulge at our expense. Most of all we must discard our myopic interpretation of our faith.

            Expose the forces that have entrapped the Malay mind, and we are on our way to liberating it. That essentially summarizes my book. What follows are but elaborations, illustrations, and persuasions.

May 17, 2015

This essay is adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2013

Next week:  Excerpt #3:  Imagining a Different Future

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Merdekakan Minda Melayu (Liberate The Malay Mind)

Merdekakan Minda Melayu (Liberate The Malay Mind)
M. Bakri Musa

Malays need to have minda merdeka (free or liberated mind). We do not need another Melayu Baru (New Malay), Glokal Malay (contraction for global and local), Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony), revolusi mental (mental revolution), and other tired slogans. Those would all be for naught if our collective minds remained trapped with their distorted views of the past and present. Facing the future with a closed mind is not the way either, at least not with any hope for success.

            The famed Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer published his highly-acclaimed Buru Quartet novels soon after his release from Pulau Buru prison. When asked during a book tour in America how he was able to craft such a wonderful work of art while being imprisoned under the most inhumane conditions, Pramoedya replied, “I create freedom for myself!”

            This is what a free mind can do. Your body may be imprisoned and confined to total darkness for 24 hours a day save for a ray of light peeking through the keyhole, as Pramoedya was, but no one could imprison your free mind. Under such cruel circumstances a mind that is not free could easily disintegrate, going wild and berserk, which justifies the continued isolation and inhumane treatment.

            Likewise, Malays must create freedom for ourselves. Merdeka Minda Melayu! (Liberate The Malay Mind!) This should be our new battle cry, its rhythmic resonance and arresting alliteration trumping even Hang Tuah’s immortal Takkan Melayu Hilang Di Dunia! (Malays shall never disappear from this Earth!)

            Implicit in my choice of the title for this book is the recognition that the Malay mind has long been entrapped. The challenges our community has been grappling with all along can directly or indirectly be attributed to the fact that our collective consciousness has been caged and consequently closed off to seeking out new and innovative solutions.

            Contrary to the assertions of many, our problems are not rooted in the presumed deficiencies of our biology or culture. Nor are they caused by colonialism (traditional or the neo-variety), the pendatangs (immigrants), capitalism, globalization, or even our supposed lack of unity. We have been led to believe that these are problems, not opportunities. They will remain so as long our minds are trapped. If we liberate our minds we will then be able to view these challenges as opportunities, and begin to explore them as such. That would be more productive, and the results would be more to our liking.

            We have been addicted to the comfort of life underneath the proverbial coconut shell for far too long. Now with the shell breached by globalization and the digital waves, it is dawning upon us that our “comfort” is anything but. There is a far greater, more open, and definitely wondrous universe out there that we have been missing.

            Life under the coconut shell is no longer sustainable; for many it is already intolerable. We can either topple this shell ourselves or risk having it done by external forces. With the former we would be in command of our destiny; we could choose the timing, manner, and consequently the outcome. With the latter, we would be at the mercy of events and circumstances beyond our control; we would be reduced to being victims, begging for the kindness and benevolence of others.

            Saddam Hussein and his Republican Guards certainly thought they were very comfortable in the desert, secure under their well-camouflaged shells. That is, until those shells were literally blown apart by outside forces.

            The Malay coconut shell cannot be physically destroyed as it is only metaphorical – our closed minds. Besides, with the huge pores already created by globalization and the digital revolution, many have already successfully emerged from underneath that shell. The biggest danger is not so much that our shell will be toppled by outside forces or through agitations from within, rather that the world would ignore and leave us to rot underneath it, with only the mushrooms to sustain us.

            This would be the fate that awaits those with a closed mind. Perhaps we could rationalize that by adopting a “leave us alone” philosophy. Such an option however, is not for us to choose but for others to impose.

            If we do not merdekakan minda kita, that is, liberate our minds, others will define our destiny for us.

            In short, the future of Malays depends on, in Pramoedya’s words, our ability to create freedom for ourselves. We would achieve this goal not through endless and meaningless mass exhortations from our leaders rather individual at a time. A Malay with a liberated mind is his or her own leader. We can dispense with the current crop of leaders with trapped minds.

Adapted from M. Bakri Musa:  Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2013

Next week:  Changing The Malay Narrative

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Malaysia's Wasted Decade 2004-2014

Excerpt #5 (Last):  Two Black Swans and Many More Dark Crows

            Already one component of the toxic triad – Abdullah Badawi – is gone and no longer heaping his share of trash upon the nation. As for UMNO, despite being the largest party and a ruling one at the federal level for over the past half a century, it never gets a foothold in Sarawak. Of the nine states in the peninsula, UMNO is permanently wiped off in Penang, Kelantan, and Selangor. If the federal territory of Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur were also a state, UMNO would be wiped out there too. At one time it was also out in Perak, Kedah, and Trengganu.

            That leaves only Najib. My earlier prediction of his premature ending as prime minister notwithstanding (see “Priority of Packaging Over Performance’” page 119), he is now secure at the top of the UMNO rubbish heap. To be the unchallenged skipper of the Titanic is no job security; it could very well undermine your well-being.

            I am always amazed at the ability of one person to initiate transformational changes. Often those individuals are the ones we least expect. There is no rhyme or reason for such individuals to emerge except that they somehow appear at the right time and place, with all the right people to help him or her do the right thing in the right manner; in short, the confluence of all the elements and the alignment of all the stars.

            In the 1990s Indonesia was threatened to be ripped apart by its bewildering centrifugal forces. Today it celebrates its peaceful democratic transition with a new and promising leader in Joko Widodo. Further east, who would have predicted back in the 1970s that a diminutive, uninspiring and uncharismatic Deng Xiaoping would dismantle the handiwork of the colossal but destructive Mao Zedong?

            Further east across the Yellow Sea, in the 1950s the South Koreans depended entirely on the spending of the hundreds of thousands of American GIs stationed there. Then came General Park; today Samsung, Hyundai and LG are global household brand names.

            At the same time I do not underestimate the ability of one idiot to wreck untold damage upon a nation while its citizens stand by and let it happen. Nearby there was Indonesia’s Sukarno, further away Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, and in the not-too-distant past, Iraq’s Saddam.

            Thus I do not underestimate Najib Razak to do likewise to the great nation of Malaysia if Malaysians let him. I hope they would not.

            Malaysia suffered through two horrific man-made disasters in the span of just a few months in 2014. The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 over the South China Sea remains a mystery to this day. While we know what happened to Flight MH17, the question remains of why a MAS plane? After all, a Singapore Airlines jet had earlier flown a similar route while an Air India one was only a few kilometers away.

            When a “black swan” (rare, unpredictable) event occurs, it is natural for people to look beyond the realm of the rational for an explanation. This is not an affliction of only the uninformed and poorly educated. In part this reflects the universal recognition that there is a greater power governing us all that we have as yet to fully comprehend.

            When 9-11 struck, many religious leaders insensitive to the pain of the victims’ relatives and friends called it divine retribution for America’s tolerance of homosexual ways; likewise when Katrina broke the levees of New Orleans.

            At the other end of the world, when the Asian tsunami hit northern Sumatra at Christmas 2004, the iconic image that was seared into everyone’s memory was of the lone mosque standing forlornly and unscathed amidst the sea of destruction around it.

            Those with even an inkling of science knew that the tsunami was caused by a shift in the earth’s tectonic plates deep in the floor of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Sumatra. That knowledge has profound consequences; it led to the creation of ocean sensors that could detect those earth and giant wave movements well ahead to warn those that may be affected. Along the coast of Japan and western North and South America there are already early warning systems and clearly marked evacuation routes. Indonesia did not have them then.

            The science-challenged Indonesian peasants saw things differently. To them, the lone standing mosque was Allah sending them a message. The peace treaty that ended the generations-long civil war in Aceh was signed soon after. Their metaphysical interpretation of events too had a fruitful consequence.

            Before we dismiss or belittle the Indonesians’ belief, there is still the question of why the tectonic shift had to occur there and at that particular time and not at some remote uninhabited part of the Pacific. That defies science, at least as we know it. Modern science offers only probabilities.

            So when Malaysia suffered through two eerily similar “black swan” tragedies in the two passenger-jet crashes, it was not a surprise that many looked for some explanations beyond science. To be sure, a plane disappearing or crashing is not a black swan event, but MH370 disappeared without leaving any trace, incredulous in this day of round-the-clock ubiquitous satellite surveillance. That tragedy still baffles the experts. As for the ill-fated MH17, while we all knew what happened (it was shot down), still the question remains why a MAS plane was the unfortunate victim.

            When an obscure village alim says that the calamities were caused by MAS serving alcohol, he can rightly be scoffed at and be ridiculed. By that theory Emirate Airlines would have been a top casualty. However, when thoughtful commentators like Kadir Jasin, the former editor-in-chief of The New Straits Times, and Zaid Ibrahim, a former cabinet minister and successful corporate lawyer, alluded to bala or divine retribution, then we are compelled to pause and reflect. This is especially so when their views resonated with the general public.

            In reality, many had taken figurative pot shots at MAS in the past. Stated differently, long before these two black swans, the airline had had many dark crows. MAS would long ago have been grounded, and many times too, had it not been for the government coming in with expensive rescue bailouts.

            Profitable units of the airline, like catering and maintenance, had been siphoned off to UMNO cronies, and then MAS was forced to buy back those services at inflated prices, converting what were once revenue-producing units into revenue-draining ones. On another front, instead of pampering its customers, MAS was pampering its employees, from ramp handlers to top executives. They all happily hogged the company’s trough at the customers’ expense, and with taxpayers ultimately paying the bill.

            While other airlines were getting substantial discounts for their new planes and passing those savings back to their companies, MAS was paying full retail price, with the discounts going into the pockets of crony middle men “consultants” in cahoots with top executives. Then there was that “brilliant” idea of selling its headquarters in a prime Kuala Lumpur location and then renting space back from its new owner. It’s akin to selling your house and then paying rent to the new owner, adding another expense. This was what Pan Am Airlines did in 1970. We all know what happened to that company.

            Then there was that wonderful scheme of financial engineering scheme dubbed WAU (Widespread Asset Unbundling) where MAS sold its planes and then leased them back. Again it was like selling its headquarters. Not owning your own planes is a smart and effective strategy for a start-up airline; it conserves capital that could be diverted to expanding its market. It is however a dumb move for an established company to do so as that would only add another layer of costs. The only ones wowed by that WAU scheme were the new owners of the planes and the investment bankers who arranged the deal. That deal was also a cute play on words as “wau” is Malay for kite, the airline’s logo.

            If MAS shares serve as a metaphor for Malaysia, then what happens to MAS the company mirrors what happens to Malaysia the country. Previously reliable services like power and water that were provided by competent public entities are now privatized, sold at heavily discounted prices to favored political cronies. These ersatz capitalists, pseudo entrepreneurs, and rent seekers came out like bandits, but the pipes often run dry, and when they do flow, the water is not fit to drink. Likewise with electrical supplies; they are erratic and with ever escalating prices.

            The government cannot forever protect MAS from the reality of an increasingly competitive world. The price for bailouts keeps escalating and is no longer sustainable. For MAS, the skid was greased by the entry of Air Asia at one end, which cannibalized MAS on the domestic and regional front, and Singapore and other Asian airlines like Cathay Pacific that chipped away at MAS’s long-haul destinations.

            The first black swan, MH370 disappearance, exposed the incompetence of Malaysian leaders on the world stage. Malaysians of course have been fully aware of this for a long time. These leaders could not handle even simple queries from journalists and the public. The astute political cartoonist Zunar captured well the bumbling Najib. His biting cartoon depicting a “Too Weak” Najib “Two Weeks” after MH370 was carried by The Washington Post.

            Like MAS, Malaysians too have been exposed to the reality of a highly competitive globalized world. They now realize that the “education” they had received at local institutions has been nothing more than indoctrination. Their low English proficiency and abysmal communicating skills and critical thinking faculties do not serve them well in the new marketplace.

            I hope Malaysian leaders would heed the wisdom of Zaid Ibrahim and Kadir Jassin, that is, treat the two black swan events as the Indonesians treated their black swan of the Asian tsunami. Keep the Malaysian house pure and in good order, free of what displeases Allah, not to please Him but to please Malaysians.

            If Najib and others in UMNO fail to heed this message, then Malaysians are duty bound to remove them and give others the privilege to lead the nation