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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.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Ungku Aziz and Raja Petra - Exemplars of Contemporary Free Minds

Ungku Aziz and Raja Petra – Exemplars of Contemporary Free Minds
M. Bakri Musa
Hang Jebat and Hang Nadim are but characters in our legends, but the chronicles of their exploits serve as eternal lessons of what a free-mind can achieve. Munshi Abdullah and Datuk Onn were giants in our history, but many especially the young may not have heard of or find them interesting. So I will cite a pair of contemporary figures as exemplars of a free mind.

      Many know of Ungku Aziz, a man of many firsts. I will not enumerate them because 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 present leaders’ inability or unwillingness to tap his vast expertise.

      I first heard of him as a secondary school student in the late 1950s while visiting the University of Malaya. 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. Below that 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 a trashy novel on jinns or hookers. (It still seems that way today!) Even though I did not understand a word in the book (it was a classic socio-economic study of the rubber industry in the early years of independence), it nonetheless made a huge impression on me.
     Here I was a high school student; I had difficulty even completing reading my much thinner textbooks. Yet in front of me 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 of similar substance.

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

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

     In his studies Ungku Aziz discovered that the reality was far different. Malays were indeed diligent savers as attested to the ubiquitous bamboo tabongs in Malay homes. We saved for weddings and of course for a trip to Mecca, the aspiration of all Muslims. However, we did not use conventional savings institutions like banks because of our religious prohibitions against ribaa (interest).

     It is a tribute to the genius of Ungku Aziz that he not only identified the problem correctly (key towards solving it) but went on to create institutions that would cater to the specific economic needs of Malays. Thus was born Tabung Haji, a mutual fund-like financial institution that takes in Malay savings, especially from rural areas, and invests them in halal enterprises (meaning, no casinos or breweries). The returns on such investments were rightly labeled as fa’edah (dividends) and not bunga (interest), thus satisfying Malay 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 is not trapped by the conventional wisdom and thinking.
     There are today many more Malay economists, some sporting impressive doctorates from elite universities. Thus you would expect a quantum leap in the number of innovations like Tabung Haji to cater to the special and specific needs of Malays. Alas this is not the case. Instead what we have are a plethora of government-linked companies and similar entities more adept at sucking precious public funds out of Treasury 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 would expand Tabung’s reach, like catering for Muslims in the region, or offering services beyond Hajj and umrah. I would have expected Tabung Haji to have its own fleet of aircrafts and branch offices in every village, not to mention expanding its lending activities beyond. Tabung Haji should have also long ago driven those usurious Chettiars and Ah Longs out of business.

      As is evident, impressive academic qualifications or holding an exalted position does not equal or signal a free and innovative mind. Often times the more impressive your title and position are, or the degrees you have accumulated, the more beholden you are to expectations. Your mind is trapped into thinking of only complex solutions while missing out on the simple, inexpensive and less sexy ones.

      The reverse is probably even more true, that is, those without exalted titles or positions are freer and unafraid to express themselves. Raja Petra Kamarudin best exemplifies this. Many do not know or care who the chief editor of The New Straits Times or any of the other mainstream media is, but almost all have heard of and more importantly pay attention to Raja Petra. A reflection of his fame or notoriety (from the government’s view) is that he is recognized simply by his initials. He is truly transformational, to use Najib’s favorite and over-used word, and a phenomenon.

      A scion of the Selangor royal family, RPK could have easily followed in the footsteps of so many of his peers, living it up courtesy of the generous royal civil allowance. Instead he became a successful entrepreneur, a genuine one in contrast to hordes of the ersatz variety that plagues our community. Now retired from his business, he devotes himself to his wildly popular and highly influential website, Malaysia-Today.
     His first presence in cyberspace was in 1995, the dawn of the digital age, with his rather unimaginative “Raja Petra’s Homepage.” At that time he was one of the few who dared write uncomplimentary articles on the government. He was also among the first to predict the impending split between Prime Minister Mahathir and his then deputy, Anwar, at a time when the former was “110 percent” behind the latter. RPK sensed the maneuvering of Anwar’s underlings eager to replace Mahathir’s.
     Then like so many Malaysians who were deeply offended by the government’s treatment of Anwar, RPK started his “Free Anwar” webpage. When Anwar was finally freed, far from losing a cause and withering away, Pete, as he is known by those who know him well, started Malaysia-Today with the avowed purpose “to teach Malaysians how to think, to dissent, to question, and much more,” as he once told a BBC interviewer. And with that, RPK blossomed and Malaysia is the beneficiary.

     There are many other news portals and Internet sites including those of the established media, but none matches Raja Petra’s Malaysia-Today in terms of readership and influence. The government is only too aware of this, hence the frequent attempts at blocking the site. The authorities even resorted to arresting him under the ISA but the man was unfazed. The last time he was held, the government had to quickly release him unconditionally as he threatened a hunger strike. To this day, he remains the only ISA prisoner to be released unconditionally.
     The Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s free-mindedness while being imprisoned blossomed his mind to craft those wonderful Pulau Buru quartet novels; Raja Petra’s led to his unconditional release.

     Pramoedya said it best. When asked how he could have managed to craft such wonderful works while being imprisoned under the most inhumane conditions, responded, “I create freedom for myself!” That is the awesome power of a free mind!


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