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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.

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


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