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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.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The False Comfort and Security Underneath the Coconut Shell

The False Comfort and Security Underneath the Coconut Shell

The North Koreans are convinced that they live in Paradise because their “Beloved Leader” tells them so. Never mind that they wake up every morning with nothing to look forward to, and go to sleep at night on an empty stomach. Likewise, Malaysian leaders never tire of telling us that they are competent and honest despite the mess the country is in, while they luxuriate in palatial mansions and citizens struggle to eke out a living. Those leaders could not possibly afford such obscene opulence just on their government wages. However, express your doubts and you stand accused of being blasphemous, disloyal, or even traitorous.

            Returning to the coconut shell metaphor, that little (or even big) frog can be smug about his world and claim to comprehend and be in full command of it. After all what is there to understand or command? His world is dark and small. He is the only one to obey his orders!

            What that proverbial Señor Froggie does not appreciate is that his universe, huge as it may seem to him, is nothing but a speck.

            Those on the outside may be tempted to lord it over the unfortunate entrapped frog. We may even pity it. However, as Pramoedya noted in his Child of All Nations, “Pity is the feeling of well-intentioned people who are unable to act.” Impotent, we assuage what little guilt we may harbor by rationalizing that the poor soul is probably quite happy with his lot. That may well be; after all you do not miss what you do not know or have.

            Malays face many forces, subtle as well as brute, that keep us cooped under our coconut shell. The subtle ones include the feudal elements of our culture, as with our ready acceptance of our fate (takdir) and our meek acceptance of and deference to authority figures. Then there are our schools and universities; they indoctrinate our young instead of teaching them to think critically. We are also easily taken in with labels; call something “Islamic” and we fall for it right away, suspending our critical judgment. I understand that they are working on an “Islamic” beer! Our leaders exploit this by labeling those they disagree with as anti-Islam, “anti-nationals,” or “unpatriotic.” We in turn are only too ready to believe those labels. The current puerile debate over halal and haram is a manifestation of this meaningless obsession.

            As for the brute forces, there are the intrusive and repressive laws like the dreadful Internal Security Act where a minister has absolute power to incarcerate citizens without trial. Now Malaysia has the National Security Act of 2016 with even more unchecked powers given to the authorities. Again, note those labels; those laws are not for our “security” but to keep us subservient.

            No mortal should ever have unchecked and absolute power. As the Sudanese reformer Mahmoud Mohamad Taha observed, “No person is perfect enough to be entrusted with the liberty and dignity of others.” We need effective checks and balances, and respect for due process. Those are not niceties but necessities. Do not let any mullah, regardless how impressive his title or big his turban is, tell you otherwise. You would be a donkey to believe him.

            Three daunting obstacles face our entrapped citizen frog in escaping from underneath his coconut shell. The first and greatest is to instill in him the realization that he is indeed trapped, and then to ignite in him the desire to escape; second, help him escape or topple that shell; and third, assist him to adjust to his new open world.

            The first obstacle is the toughest. Far too often we lack even the awareness of being trapped. We remain blissfully ignorant. This awareness is crucial but by itself is not enough; we must also then have the desire to escape. For that to happen, we must first be dissatisfied with our current state.

            It may seem perverse but there are those who are content to remain underneath their shell, readily accepting their fate as Allah’s will–al qadar (divinely destined). Who are we to challenge His design?

            Then there is the universal power of inertia; we are comfortable with the status quo. Besides, it has served our parents, and their parents and even grandparents well. Again, who are we to alter tradition?
       As for ambition, that would only upset mankind, as Pramoedya noted in his short story, Djongos dan Babu (Houseboy and Maid). That family destined themselves to be slaves forever. If God were to pity them, their thirtieth generation would have descended so low as to be no longer humans but worms crawling inside the earth, wrote Pramoedya.

            The coconut shell world of Sabu and Ina (the sibling characters in that story) was tossed over many times, yet they still sought to be underneath one. The Dutch enslaved them, but when the colonial world collapsed, instead of liberating themselves they chose to be enslaved under the Japanese. When the Japanese were defeated, the pair again chose to be enslaved, this time by the returning Dutch. Happy to be perpetual slaves they refused to be free with their fellow Indonesians, deeming themselves “too good” to be with their fellow dirty, brown natives.

            History is replete with examples of external upheavals resulting in the inadvertent toppling of shells. Trapped underneath we are not even aware up until then of the external cataclysms. Only when all of a sudden, we find ourselves in a new, open and much bigger world do we realized that we had been cooped up all along.

            Those who destined themselves to be eternal slaves (or accept their fate) like Pramoedya’s Sabu and Ina would find this new world far from welcoming; in fact, it would be downright frightening. They would then scramble to find new shells to hide under, like hermit crabs exposed after the onslaught of a tidal wave. For others, the external upheaval that toppled their shell would be a welcomed transforming event.

Next:  Paths Toward Toppling Our Coconut Shell

Excerpted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications.


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