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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.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Meaning of A Free Mind

The Meaning of A Free Mind
M. Bakri Musa

The meaning of a free mind can best be illustrated by this story of Mullah Nasaruddin, a fictitious alim known for his effective use of simple and often self-deprecating stories to drive home a point, illuminate a concept, or challenge conventional wisdom.

He had a neighbor who was fond of borrowing items from him and then conveniently forgetting to return them. One day this neighbor came to the mullah to borrow his donkey. Anticipating this, the mullah had locked his animal away in the barn and out of sight. Upon hearing the request, the mullah confidently replied that his donkey had been taken away earlier by his brother. Just as the disappointed neighbor turned away, the donkey brayed. He turned around and remarked, “You said your donkey was gone!”

To which the mullah replied, “Do you believe the braying of a donkey or the words of a mullah?”

If you can accept that at times a donkey can be the bearer of the truth, and a mullah the purveyor of untruth, then you have exhibited a free mind, minda merdeka. There are many reasons why we continue believing the mullah despite the donkey braying in our face, and I will explore some of these subsequently.

Our mission must be the molding of free minds, or to put in Malay, Mengasoh Minda Merdeka. We want Malays to believe the braying donkey even if the mullah were to say otherwise. Mengasoh Minda Merdeka is a nobler and definitely more productive pursuit than the current mindless obsession with Ketuanan Melayu or Agama, Bangsa, Negara. It is also a much more evocative mantra.

Datuk Onn’s free mind enabled him to hear the braying of the donkey, the rakyats’ abhorrence of the Malayan Union Treaty, and wisely ignored the words of his mullah, the sultan. When you hear the donkey bray, do not let the sweet words of the mullah persuade you otherwise, lest you risk being made to look like an ass, or worse.

Malays have been politically free since 1957, but the Malay mind is still entrapped. Time to liberate it, to grant its cherished freedom – Merdeka Minda Melayu! The philosopher Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah, better known as HAMKA, described best what a free mind is with this last-but-one stanza of his poem, Nikmat Hidup (Life’s Bounty).

Menahan fikiran aku tak mungkin / Menumpul kalam aku tak kuasa.
Merdeka berfikir gagah perkasa / Berani menyebut yang aku yakin. (57-60)

My approximate translation is:

Censoring ideas is not my deal / Nor putting to rest my writing quill.
Fearless are those who dare to think / And put to words their inner being.

I challenge readers to find among Malay leaders today those who are Merdeka berfikir (free thinking) and gagah perkasa (fearless core). To be free minded is to be courageous to the core; that is what Hamka meant with his stirring line, Merdeka befikir gagah perkasa.

Merdeka berfikir alone, courageous and laudatory as that may be, is not sufficient. You must also have the conviction to articulate your ideas and then share them with others. Otherwise it would be like a tree falling in the forest; with no one hearing it, will it make any sound? More importantly, will it matter? Thus Hamka’s berani menyebut! (Dare to voice).

We can share our thoughts orally, with colleagues and friends over coffee, or more formally as at seminars and congresses. In such instances only those present would hear you, and they in turn would, it is to be hoped, spread the idea. Modern technology such as audio and video recording greatly expands the reach.

The Ayatollah Khomeini triggered the Islamic Revolution from his safe sanctuary in France through audiotape recordings of his sermons. Those tapes were then smuggled into Iran. The digital revolution obviates the need for physical smuggling as those tapes could be digitized and then be made available worldwide in real time. I can listen to Mahathir’s speech at the Save Malaysia People’s Congress last Sunday, March 27, 2016 in the comfort of my living room, and with no risk of being harassed by the police.

Writing extends this reach further through space and time. Writing, in the words of Prameodya Ananta Toer, is “one person speaking to many,” now and forever. Hamka is long gone but his wisdom lives on through his words.

Writing, unlike speaking, imposes a certain discipline. You have to gather, organize, and then present your thoughts in a logical and attractive fashion so as to interest your readers. You do not have a captive audience. Readers could just toss away what they are reading if they think it is rubbish. No such constraints exist with talking. Undisciplined, it readily degenerates into nonproductive “coffee shop talk.” “Cakap kosong je!” (empty talk only!), as the villagers put it.

          Back to a free mind, another way to grasp its meaning would be to seek its synonyms and antonyms. An open, liberated or flexible mind would mean the same as a free mind. Its opposite would be a closed or rigid mind. Malays have a saying, katak di bawah tempurung (frog underneath a coconut shell). That is an apt and beautiful metaphorical imagery of a closed mind, the very opposite of a free mind.

A free mind is Allah’s command. Consider his command to Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w, as revealed in Surah Al-Rud (Thunder), “. . . Thy duty is no more than to deliver the message; the reckoning is Ours!” (13:40 – approximate translation). The prophet was to deliver the divine message but not to force it. This is reinforced in Surah Al-Rahf (The Cave, 18-29), “… Let him who will, believe; and whosoever will, let him disbelieve.”

A faith enforced is no faith. That is the essence of those verses. We accept Islam of our own free will, not because it is forced upon us. A free mind is thus a necessary condition to being a believer.

We have an obligation, to ourselves and to our Creator, not to let our minds be enslaved. Nor should we enslave others. The road to serfdom however, to borrow von Hayek’s phrase, is often laid with the best of intentions. We can be easily lulled into following the paved path that leads to our mental enslavement.

We also have an obligation to those mentally enslaved, to help topple their coconut shell. To do so effectively, we first must appreciate and understand the challenges and obstacles they face. Our obligation extends beyond. Not only must we help them topple their coconut shell but we must also support them in adjusting to the new open world. Unprepared, they would find this new world far from exhilarating and rewarding but instead, disorienting and full of problems.

With the old certitudes of life under the shell now gone, we grope for new ones. Unfortunately, there are few except this:  Have faith that a free mind will get you through. The corresponding beauty is that once a mind is free it cannot be fettered ever again. A free mind is the best guarantor that a new shell would never encroach upon us again. Our physical freedom can be taken away, often capriciously as in a country like Malaysia, but with a free mind we create our own freedom, as Pramoedya forcefully reminded us.

A nation aspiring for greatness needs citizens and leaders with free minds. We can do without the Pak Turut (“Yes men”) leaders, content with echoing and regurgitating what they have been programmed to say, encapsulated in the hallowed ethos of our civil service, Saya menunggu arahan! (I await directives), or the equally servile Kami menurut perentah! (I follow orders). Their brand of “leadership” is merely to lead us plodding along the well-trodden path. They are incapable of carving new ones; they would persist along the same path even when it is riddled with potholes and ruts or ravaged by floods and landslides. They are also incapable of comprehending that the well-trodden path is often the one that leads to the garbage dump.

Malaysia cannot aspire to Vision 2020, much less greatness, with such leadership. We need leaders willing and capable of paving new paths. In short, leaders with a free mind.

To have such leaders we need citizens with free minds. Free-minded followers have free-minded leaders. Even without such leaders, our free-mindedness would enable us to carve our own path, to believe the braying donkey and not the smooth-talking Mullah. If we were to be successful, then others would follow and improve on our path. Then we would truly be makhlok soleh (exemplary being) and our society, masyarakat soleh (exemplary society).

Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya. Its second edition was released recently on January 2016.

Monday, March 21, 2016

GLCs The Problem, Not The Solution

GLCs The Problem, Not The Solution
M. Bakri Musa

Last of Six Parts

Malaysia is today paralyzed – and polarized – by the scandal of One Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a government-linked company (GLC). Rest assured that this debacle will not be the last. The other certainty is that future ones will carry even far greater costs.

The only sure way to prevent this is to get rid of GLCs. Sell them, and use the proceeds to enhance the quality of our human capital. In the final analysis that is the only matrix that matters.

GLCs are now very much part of if not the problem, as exemplified by 1MDB. They are not the solution, not even part of it.

As massive as the price tag of the 1MDB fiasco is (and it’s still growing), far more consequential is the accompanying erosion of our institutions and degradation of our values. You cannot quantify those damages.

We have ulamas now saying that we should tolerate corrupt leaders; to throw them out is haram or un-Islamic! The integrity of the Anti-Corruption Agency, the Attorney-General’s office, Bank Negara, and hosts of other key institutions is now shattered. They are less guardians of public trust, more enablers for a corrupt leader.

Restoring our previous values will be no easy task. These corrupt acts are now viewed as otherwise; they are our new norms.

Tun Razak introduced GLCs in the 1960s to achieve three objectives. First, he wanted to level the economic playing field by challenging and giving much-needed competition to the existing monopolies and monopsonies of large primarily colonial and a smattering of Chinese-owned companies. Doing so would pave the way for new entrants, in particular Malay entities. Only the government then had the might to take on those massive established enterprises.

This is the same rationale China uses to justify its GLCs, to take on the giant global companies that are now entering the country as a result of Deng’s economic liberalization policies. China, being new to capitalism, has no domestic enterprises with the financial might or managerial expertise to compete with these global giants.

Second, GLCs were to spearhead Malay entry into the private sector.

These two objectives were integral to Razak’s larger scheme of “restructuring society to eradiate the identification of race with economic activities,” the foundation of his New Economic Policy.

Third and last, Razak wanted to bypass the byzantine ways and sluggish pace of the civil service. The civil service of yore, despite the nostalgic memories to the contrary of its now-retired members, was never the paragon of efficiency or innovation. They, like their counterparts today, epitomized their motto, “Kami menurut perentah” (We follow orders!), only too well.

Six decades later, those three objectives have yet to be accomplished. Worse, GLCs have created many new and even more serious problems as exemplified by 1MDB, quite apart from their being a drag on the Treasury and thus taxpayers.

Consider Malay participation in the corporate sector. Today the figure is stuck at under 20 percent, stagnant if not declining, and far below our share of the population. GLCs have succeeded only in breeding an entrenched class of rent seekers and ersatz capitalists among Malays, while squeezing out the genuine variety. Far too often GLCs compete with genuine Bumiputra entrepreneurs.

Of relevance here, how many Malay entrepreneurs have these GLCs spawned either in their supply chain or through the ranks of their employees?  

As for leveling the economic playing field, far from achieving that GLCs further distort it. These GLCs also suck in Malay talent that would otherwise be the initiators of their own enterprises, or find their way up in the private corporate sector. When these GLCs comprise 40 percent (by value) of the Stock Exchange (KLSE), they make a mockery of the free market dynamics.

Nor have these GLCs succeeded in bypassing the inefficiencies of the lumbering civil service. On the contrary those non-productive practices of the civil service are now the norms in GLCs. What do you expect when the governing bodies and upper echelons of these GLCs have now become the cushy preserve of retired, compliant senior civil servants?

The prospect of a lucrative post-retirement appointment in GLCs is a pernicious influence on the behaviors of top public servants. Be too critical of the stupid ideas of your political superiors and you blow your chances of such lucrative assignments. It is not hard to miss that those retired civil servants who are now so critical of the government are also the ones who had been denied their plump post-retirement appointments.

At another level, what these former senior government officials now working in GLCs do not or refuse to acknowledge is that they are “double dipping.” They “retire” and draw their pensions from their old government job and then work in another government entity and accruing a fresh set of pension! If they have any sense of ethics or basic fairness they should not draw on their civil service pensions and instead consider themselves as continuing their employment but at another governmental entity. These selfish individuals are oblivious of the burden they impose on taxpayers. In fact, they are ripping off the taxpayers. This should stop.

Sell these GLCs to the highest bidders. I could not care less whether they are Malays or non-Malays, Malaysians or foreigners. Focus on getting the best price.

The first and immediate positive impact of such a move would be the removal of a major and continuing source of public corruption and political patronage. We would be spared of future 1MDBs. Political has-beens like Isa Samad (head of FELDA’s FGV) and retired senior civil servants like Sidek Hassan (Petronas) would now have to prove their executive talent to secure lucrative corporate jobs instead of banking on their loyalty to their political superiors.

Have professional managers, local or foreign, manage those funds generated from the sales. Divest these GLCs slowly and deliberately to avoid a “fire-sale” psychology, like spreading it over a decade or two and selling only a portion of a company at a time. That was how Canada privatized its PetroCanada. The Canadian government received increasingly premium prices with each subsequent sale.

Stipulate that the bulk of the funds be invested domestically. Apart from investing in our schools and colleges, part of that local investment should include funding individuals to start their own enterprises in a manner of a venture capitalist, as well as investing in physical infrastructures, from the lowly pasar minggu facilities to modern shopping plazas, to encourage trading among our people.

When Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., started his community in Medinah, the first thing he did was build a marketplace where citizens could trade. He knew the importance of trade in promoting harmony among the then plural societies of Medinah, between the immigrant Muslims from Mecca and the host Muslims, and between Muslims and non-Muslims. To signal the importance of trade, the prophet did not charge for use of the facility, considering it a public good.

Examples of venture capital investment could be the financing such low-ticket items like helping taxi drivers buy their own cabs or fishermen their outboard motors. Imagine the boost to their income if our taxi drivers owned their vehicles. Taxis in Malaysia should be owner-operated. We can do without another layer of unnecessary costs as with having non-operator owners skimming the profits off the drivers’ backs.

However, instead of just giving the money and then see those dealers jack up their prices, negotiate on behalf of those taxi drivers and fishermen to get massive fleet discounts and then pass the savings on to them. Leverage the clout of the investment company to extract the best deals from the dealers.

The recent example of Selangor’s religious department using zakat funds to buy food trucks for lease or sale to hawkers is an excellent example.

From there venture on to bigger ticket items, like funding furloughed but enterprising MAS pilots to buy planes to start their own private jet or cargo services. Or an enterprising group of physicians or teachers wanting to build their own private hospitals or schools.

What I would not do is start companies or in anyway resurrect the GLC concept. Doing that would only perpetuate the makan gaji (“salary man”) mentality of Malays. Instead actively seek out entrepreneurial Malays and fund them to start their own ventures. Governments should not start companies; only enterprising individuals should.

We should instill in Malays the wisdom of our Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., that is, it is far more meritorious to be the dispensers rather than the recipients of salaries.

When you fund these individuals, do not give them the total lump sum right away in the manner of the disbursement of the RM250 million to a minister’s spouse to start that infamous cattle ranch in Gemas. Instead make the disbursements contingent upon satisfactory performance or progress at every stage. Had that been done we would not have the expensive embarrassment of the National Cattle Feedlot scandal.

As is apparent, there are many potential recipients of those investments funds. Think of the graduates of MARA catering school who could start their own restaurants, agricultural graduates who wish to start their own sheep ranch or durian dusun, and the hundreds of mechanics, plumbers and electricians, the products of our technical institutes, who wish to have their own workshops.

Even if we do not spawn a class of entrepreneurial Malays from these funds, getting rid of these GLCs would at least achieve the major goals of removing a major and expensive source of embarrassment to the nation and the nidus for corrupt political patronages. We would also discourage the parasitic class of Malay economic rentiers. Those would be achievements enough.

Speech delivered at the launching by Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz of my book, Liberating The Malay Mind, on January 30, 2016, at Shah Alam.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Islamic Institutions Have Failed The Ummah

Islamic Institutions Have Failed The Ummah
M. Bakri Musa

Fifth of Six Parts

Religion imprisons the Malay mind. Islam in Malaysia is what those government-issued ulamas say it is. Express a different viewpoint and you risk being labelled a deviant, a murtad, and suffer the consequences.

If that is not enough of a burden, Islamic institutions in Malaysia, as in much of the Muslim world, have also failed the ummah. In part this is because they are run by Islamic Studies graduates. Their narrow training, heavy on revealed knowledge and prophetic traditions but woefully deficient in such relevant subjects as economics, management and statistics, ill prepare them for such heavy responsibilities.

This glaring deficit is obvious to all but Islamic educators.

I am fortunate to live in the West. Through the freedom afforded me, I am free to explore the vast universe of Islamic thoughts, ancient and modern, East and West, Sunni and Shiite. That enriches my understanding of this great religion and simultaneously deepens my faith. In striking contrast, in Malaysia at the International Islamic University for example, literature on Shiitism is under lock and key. If you were to even inquire, you would be reported to the Vice Chancellor and put under extra surveillance!

Islam elevated the ancient Bedouins out of its Age of Jahiliyyah (Ignorance), making them abandon their culture of female infanticide and “an eye for an eye” sense of justice. Islam as practiced and propagated in Malaysia however, is anything but that. It is but a crude instrument of a repressive government intent on imprisoning Malay minds.

Like the clergy class that gripped the Irish during the first half of the last century, the religious bureaucrats control Malay minds through their tight leash on the social, economic, educational, and other institutions. Non-Muslim Malaysians are spared this curse and stranglehold.

Malays flock to Islamic institutions; the Islamic cachet sells. Thus when these institutions fail, the consequences are enormous.

Islamic educational institutions treat the young (and old) as dustbins to be filled with dogmas instead of a knife to be sharpened. With the former, you get only what you put in, at best, and after what is lost through attrition. With the latter, there are no limits to the potential returns on your investment.

Islamic schools and colleges are intent on indoctrinating instead of educating. With Malays flocking to such institutions like maggots to rotten carcasses, no surprise that we are overrepresented in the unemployable category.

Instead of remedying the deficits of Islamic schools and colleges, Malaysia vastly expanded its Islamic establishment to cater to these graduates, turning it into nothing more than a bloated and expensive public works project. Contrast that to America where Catholic schools and colleges with their broad-based liberal education produce more than their share of the nation’s scientists, engineers and managers. The quality of those religious schools is such that they attract many non-Catholics, Muslims included.

Contemporary Muslim educators belittle “secular” knowledge, deeming it inferior to the “religious” variety. Modern liberal Western education, they sniff, is consumed with turning its products into cobs for the capitalist machinery. These Islamic educators forget that those “cobs” contribute to the greater good and the smooth running of society.

A prophetic tradition has it that a prostitute was let into Heaven because she once saved a dog dying of thirst by bringing it water. If that were so, imagine the rewards for a veterinarian! Yet these ulamas condemn Muslim veterinary students for hugging dogs.

A Muslim engineer best demonstrates his iman (faith) not by building bridges adorned with Koranic verses but by making those structures withstand floods and heavy traffic. You achieve that through understanding the properties of materials and doing your mathematics right, not by how well you recite the holy book. Likewise, a Muslim accountant would ensure that zakat funds and the savings of would-be pilgrims are invested prudently and not diverted to corrupt leaders.

This obsession with differentiating secular versus religious knowledge is a recent phenomenon, likewise the current fixation with the “Islamization” of knowledge, an equally futile exercise. Ibn Rashid and Ibn Sina discerned no such distinction; they felt no need for such “Islamization.” Those ancient Muslim scholars saw no problem in learning from and absorbing ideas from the atheistic Greeks.

On the social front, the Islamic establishment is intent on turning the ummah into a flock of sheep and they, the only approved shepherd. Their operating principle is taqlid, obedience. No surprise that our young are good at memorizing and regurgitating while utterly incapable of critical thinking or original thought.

These present-day ulamas and scholars forget that tajdid, reform or renewal, is also very much part of Islamic tradition. Tajdid gave us such luminaries as Imam Ghazali and Ibn Khaldun.

Progress depends on the ummah questioning or at least not being satisfied with the status quo, the very antithesis of taqlid which demands that one accepts if not reveres the existing order.

Another prophetic tradition predicted that the ummah would be divided into 73 sects, but the followers of only one would enter heaven, meaning, being right. The consequence of this teaching is that every Muslim believes that his sect is the only true and correct Islam, all others being ‘misled.’

If your sect has only 1 in 73 (slightly over 1 percent) chance of being right, that also means that it has a 72 out of 73 (nearly 99 percent) of being false. If we teach our young some statistics, they would learn that a 1 percent probability of being right means a near certainty of being wrong. Similarly, if the forecast says that there is a 99 percent chance of a storm, you would be stupid (or have a death wish) to venture out to sea.

Far more consequential, the first interpretation leads you to become intolerant of other viewpoints, deeming them as bida’a, adulteration of the faith; the second makes you humble and eager to learn from the other sects. The first sows discord; the second encourages learning and fosters greater understanding among the ummah.

On the economic front, Malaysia, like other Muslim countries, fails to innovate and leverage such Islamic financial instruments as waqaf (trusts), zakat (tithe), and takaful (insurance). Properly utilized these are powerful tools for the preservation, formation, and protection of capital, respectively. And capital is the lifeblood of economic development.

Consider waqaf. Large swaths of land in Klang Valley were once under waqaf. However, unlike similar trust lands in Hawaii which are imaginatively and productively managed to benefit the natives, waqaf lands in Malaysia have been exploited for the enrichment of the privileged few.

As Timur Kuran writes in his The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back The Middle East, it is this failure to innovate that retards economic development in the Middle East. The West on the other hand enhances those elements of waqaf and tawakal into the modern concept of a corporation (or limited liability company) and insurance. And with that capitalism, and the West, blossomed.

It is hard to encourage innovation among your ummah when your operating premise is taqlid, obedience to and reverence for the existing order.

Then consider the irony of the average Muslim’s attitude to wealth. Unlike other major religions, Islam does not glorify the poor. Its has no comparable “the poor shall inherit the earth” mindset. Instead Islam celebrates wealth and its acquisition. Zakat is one of the five pillars of Islam. To give zakat, mandatory for Muslims, one must first acquire wealth. That is why, unlike other religions, begging and being dependent on charity is frowned upon in Islam.

Tradition has it that a man once came begging at the mosque where the prophet was preaching. The prophet counselled the congregation not to give the man any money but instead to lend him an axe so he could go into the forest and cut some firewood to sell.

Donating money to the begging man robs him of his dignity; lending him an axe enables him to earn a living. With the former, he is dependent on society; the latter, a contributor. That does wonders to one’s self-worth. That is the essence of Islam.

An aside with current relevance, Prime Minister Najib received billions in “donations” from the Arabs. See what it does to his dignity!

Billions are collected through zakat annually but there is a glaring lack of transparency on how the funds are managed. Little goes to the poor; instead they are diverted to buying golf simulators for our “modern” Islamic bureaucrats. Consequently, the Muslim poor have to depend on the benevolence of the churches, and then risked being accused of being murtad.

Malaysia of today reminds me of Latin America of the 1960s where the churches and cathedrals were grandiose but the flock mired in abject poverty. A few blocks from the opulent crystal mosque in Kuala Trengganu are slums and dire poverty that assault one’s sensibilities. Nobody thought of using zakat to alleviate the deplorable condition, like providing potable water and sewer system so the ummah would be much healthier and thus have a fighting chance to get out of poverty.

This obscenity epitomizes the sensibilities (or more correctly, the lack of one) as well as the priorities of the Malaysian religious establishment. Its priority remains to imprison the minds of their flock.

Speech delivered at the launching by Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz of my book, Liberating The Malay Mind, on January 30, 2016, at Shah Alam.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The Imprisoned Malay Mind The Greatest Obstacle

The Imprisoned Malay Mind The Biggest Obstacle
M. Bakri Musa

Fourth of Six Parts

In the first three essays I pointed out that the Malay problem is real and not a mere myth. It is also solvable and not unique unto our community. Thus there is much that we can learn from others.

I posited that the four critical foundations of society – leadership, citizenry, culture, and geography – interact with one another in a feed-back loop mechanism. Where the interaction is positive, that society would advance fast; where negative, it would be in a quick downhill slide.

Of the four, only geography is immutable. Of the remaining three, leadership is the easiest to change; culture, most difficult.

The greatest barrier to changing and emancipating our people is our closed minds. The Malay mind has been trapped, or more correctly imprisoned into believing that our world beneath the coconut shell is perfect despite the obvious evidence to the contrary. We are reminded of this harsh reality often, and in ways that are unpleasant or even crude. We don’t like it a bit and we lash out at and blame others.

The worst prison is one without walls or fences. Then you do not even realize that you are being imprisoned. In San Diego Zoo there is a small island surrounded by a moat no wider than a few feet. The deer on the island could easily hop over but they do not because they do not feel being imprisoned and thus have no need to escape.

However, if you were to fence the island, those animals would be pacing the perimeter looking for a break to escape.

Likewise, the Malay mind; it does not realize it is being imprisoned underneath the coconut shell. To that mind the world under the shell in the entire universe, and it is cozy and comfortable, sheltered from the harsh blistering tropical sun, thank you very much! There is no need to escape.

That sense of security and comfort however, is illusory. The digital waves have already breached our coconut shell, and with impunity. Whether we realize it or not, and whether we like it or not, those cooped up under the coconut shell are increasingly becoming aware of the vast wonderful world outside. They may not as yet be able to experience the physical reality of that world but at least they can partake in it virtually.

That however only whets the appetite, leading to increasing frustration and consequent agitation. Make no mistake; our coconut shell will be toppled. It is inevitable. The only question is when, how, by whom, and whether under controlled conditions or a free-for-all.

When the toppling is done by us and under our control, we could choose the timing and adjust the pace to suit us, thus eliminating or at least minimizing possible collateral damages. If our coconut shell were to be toppled as a consequence of swirling external events and thus beyond our control, then we would be reduced to being hapless victims, begging for the mercy and kindheartedness of others. The consequences would be equally ugly if our coconut shell were to be toppled because of internal explosion.

The coconut shell of the Arabs was toppled by events beyond their control. Those Arabs are still not yet done paying the severe price of their Arab Spring.

We must not only prepare our people to topple their coconut shell but also make them ready for the ensuing wide open world. If they are not, then they would find the new world not only blindingly bright but also very disorienting. Their immediate reaction then would be to scramble and find another coconut shell to hide under and seek comfort.

Helping them topple their own coconut shell would also simultaneously prepare them in adjusting to the new wide open world.

The Malay mind is imprisoned as a consequence of many factors, among them our warped interpretation of our religion, our corrupt and inept leadership, our crumbling and ineffective institutions, and the residuum of our previous regressive feudal culture. These elements also retard or discourage our active participation in the world of business. Engaging in trade and commerce is a powerful instrument in toppling our coconut shell.

In an earlier book, Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, I remarked how eerily the Malaysia of today resembles the Ireland of the 1950s. Malays today, like the Irish then, are in the tight clutches of religion (Islam for Malays, Catholicism for the Irish).

Young Malays flock to study Arabic, hadith, and revealed knowledge, instead of English, science, and mathematics. The Irish then fled to the convents and monasteries to recite their rosaries and memorize the catechism. Malays today are in the psychological grips of their ulamas and ustazes, just as the Irish were with their bishops and priests.

The Irish then were consumed with trying to resurrect their dead language, Gaelic. Malays today are obsessed with making sure that their young do not study any other language but Malay. Learning another language, in particular English, is seen as an expression of hatred for one’s own.

In business, the major enterprises in Malaysia today are in the hands of the Chinese minority, and politics with the Malays. In Ireland then, the major businesses were in English hands while the Irish were consumed with republican politics and endless dreams of reunification with the North. With Irish education tightly under Church control and consumed with religious instructions, the leading intellectual centers were naturally the Protestant-affiliated universities.

If there were any ambitious Irish parents who dared dream of a better future for their children by enrolling them in the much superior English schools, they risked being excommunicated. That is, being considered a murtad, in local lingo.

Sounds familiar?

In Malaysia, the schools favored by Malays are the religious and national schools with their heavy emphasis on religion, while non-Malays choose vernacular schools and private English-language colleges with their emphasis on science, technology, and other secular subjects.

It took one man, Sean Lemass, Prime Minister from 1959–66, to lead the quiet revolution in Ireland. He began by clipping the powers and influences of the Catholic Church by stripping its control over education and social policies. Freed from the suffocating control of the Church, the Irish could abandon their inferior Catholic schools and colleges to attend the much superior English universities without fear that they would be (or seen as) committing a sin. Likewise, they could use contraceptives without fear of eternal damnation, or more practically, of being condemned by their priests and bishops.

Lemass also liberalized the media including state-owned ones. They could now show foreign programs thus exposing the Irish to the greater outer world. He not only tolerated but also encouraged criticisms of his leadership and policies, a reflection of his confidence and competence

Despite the Irish antipathy towards things English, he made English, not Gaelic, the language of Ireland. Lemass was a pragmatic leader.

It took nearly fifty years for Ireland to achieve its present prosperity following the reforms Lemass initiated in the 1950s. If a Malaysian Lemass were to appear today, we could look forward to 2065 before Malaysia—in particular Malays—could be considered developed.

We have many potential Lemasses in our midst. The challenge is to vote them into power instead of keeping the present crop of crippled and corrupt OKUs (Orang Kuat UMNO). Lemass liberated the Irish from their invisible prison. Our Lemass too would do likewise to Malays.

Next: Fifth of Six Parts:  Leveraging Islamic Financial Instruments

Speech delivered at the launching by Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz of my book, Liberating The Malay Mind, on January 30, 2016, at Shah Alam.