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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, September 24, 2017

Emigration As Liberation

Emigration as Liberation
M. Bakri Musa
Many attribute America’s dynamism and openness to its tradition of accepting new immigrants, current Trump-stirred anti-immigrant hysteria notwithstanding. The hitch in that presumption is whether the very process of emigrating–the uprooting of oneself from one’s familiar surroundings to seek an uncertain future elsewhere–contributes to the opening up of one’s mind or whether it is the reverse? That is, only those who are already open-minded would consider immigration. In short, what is cause and what is effect?
            This issue is complicated by the dynamics of immigration today being so much different from what they were a century ago. Ease of travel and communication has much to do with the change. Today someone from China immigrating to America does not face the same emotionally-wrenching decision as those “shanghaied” to work on American railroads of a century ago. Today’s immigrants could Skype or Facetime their relatives back in the village upon landing at San Francisco airport. They could also return for visits during the New Year and other holidays. Even those who had been forced to leave their native country, as with the Vietnamese refugees, are now able to return freely to their land of birth.
            This age of globalization is also referred to as the Age of Migration because of the unprecedented number of people moving across borders either individually or in groups as refugees.
            There is angst in Malaysia today (and elsewhere in the developing world) over the “brain drain,” the emigration of its talented citizens. The mainstream media and blogosphere are filled with stories of individuals having to make supposedly heart-wrenching decisions to leave the country of their birth. Those personal dramas and emotions are contrived, and a bit of a stretch.
            The experiences of today’s immigrants are in no way comparable to what their earlier counterparts had to endure. Unlike them, present-day immigrants are able to make many trips home or have face-to-face chats via Web camera, not to mention frequent phone calls. Many still hold on to their old passports and retain their properties in the old country. In short, the emotional trauma of immigration, if there is any, is nowhere on the same scale as what those who came before them had to endure. The experiences of the Vietnamese and Somalians should give comfort to current refugees from places like Syria and Afghanistan.
            This is especially true of immigrants under the “brain drain” category. Their relocation is akin to an extended sojourn abroad and an opportunity to earn a better income, as well as to widen their experiences and perspectives. Because today’s émigrés return home many times, those visits home become occasions for them to relate their new experiences. That in turn helps those at home to have similar “foreign” experiences, albeit vicariously. That too can be mind-liberating on both parties.
            Again, modern technology comes to the rescue; it softens if not eliminates the trauma of migration.
            The virtual reality that digital technology delivers may lack the sensory and physical components but it still delivers the essence. The images of the carnage perpetrated by a suicide bomber in London carried on your cellphone in the comfort and safety of your palm may not have the smell of burnt flesh, nonetheless the sight of blood, maimed bodies, and screaming victims captures the brute reality close enough.
            Digital technology is the transforming invention of our times. As such, access to it should be a basic public service, made free or affordable. It should be considered a public good in the same manner as highways, healthcare, and utilities.
            Take for instance highways; it would be hard to consider a country developed without cars and roads. At the same time, both are major killers and destroyers of human life, as well as deleterious to the environment, but those are not reasons not to have cars and roads. Likewise, the digital highway; there are recognized dangers, the obvious being fraud, gambling, and pornography. Again, those are not reasons to ban or limit the Internet. Instead the focus should be on educating citizens on the dangers, just as we do with cars and highway users.
            I venture that the broad-mindedness and increasing assertiveness of Malaysians in recent years, especially among the young, is attributable to the fact that Malaysia is an open society and its cyber world remains uncensored. That is one of the few enduring legacies of Mahathir despite his second thoughts lately on Internet freedom. Now that we have tasted freedom albeit only in the cyber world, there is no turning back.
Next:  Liberation Through Education

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Modern Technology as a Great Equalizer and Liberator

Modern Technology as the Great Equalizer and Liberator
M. Bakri Musa
Modern technology, specifically digital, brings us to the outside world, and it to us. Today what happens in the remote caves high in the mountains of Kabul can be recorded on a cell phone and then posted on the Web for the whole world to see. Even a repressive regime like China could not control the dissemination of images of its tanks bulldozing innocent citizens back at Tiananmen Square in 1989, though not for lack of trying.
            The success of the Arab Jasmine Revolution owes much to this digital revolution. Through social networks like Facebook and Twitter, ordinary citizens communicated with each other in real time to organize massive demonstrations that brought down powerful leaders like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
            I assert that the digital technology is a much more powerful and consequential instrument of leveler and liberation than the AK47, hitherto (still is) the favorite with not-so-bright revolutionaries worldwide.
            Mubarak was derailed not by a gunman, like his predecessor Anwar Sadat, but by a social revolution made possible by the online social network. If there were to be a leader of that movement, it would be Google executive Wael Ghonim. Unlike earlier Arab revolutionaries who were military officers, this guy was, for lack of a better word, a geek. What an incredible achievement! No one could have predicted that Mubarak, who only a few months previously was the most powerful man in the Arab world, would face charges of premeditated murder for the deaths of those protestors.
            Digital technology is not the only modern agent of liberation. Modern transportation has reduced if not removed the barrier of geography. Today I can fly from San Francisco to Kuala Lumpur in less time than it took my sister to get from Kuala Pilah to her Teachers’ College in Kota Baru via Malayan Railway back in the 1950s.
            Travel, in so far as it affords one the opportunity to experience different cultures and realities, can be liberating. While the digital revolution might afford a virtual reality at the convenience and safety on your sofa, travel lets you experience reality in its raw, unfiltered physical form.
            The liberating effect of travel works both on the traveler as well as the host. This result however, is not guaranteed. Seeing how the rest of the world operates may not necessarily open up minds; in some it would result in the exact opposite.
            The Chinese Emperor of the 15th Century sent explorers out to the vast Pacific and Indian Oceans. Far from opening up Chinese minds, those exotic foreign expeditions merely reaffirmed their smug superiority that they had nothing to learn from the barbarians outside, a manifestation of a collective “confirmation bias” at the societal level. The Chinese were so confident of their superiority that they eschewed the need for further foreign explorations. They went further. They ordered the dismantling of their then advanced and massive maritime infrastructures, including the banning of building of boats, declaring that to be frivolous and resource-wasting exercises.
            Meanwhile the Europeans continued with their explorations. The scale was considerably much less, their ships pale imitations of the Chinese. Consider that the length of Columbus’s flagship Santa Maria was less than half the width of Cheng Ho’s.
            Unlike the ancient Chinese, the medieval Europeans had no pretensions of grandeur; they explored the world with an open mind. They had no delusions about their ways being the best; instead they observed in those foreign lands things they could take home, like tea and spices. It did not take them long to recognize the enormous potential in trading those commodities by introducing new culinary experiences to European palates. The Europeans also soon discovered that the Chinese had a voracious appetite for opium, which the Brits could secure with ease from India. Lucrative commercial domination soon led to the political variety, and thus colonialism was born.
            Why one culture reacted a certain way and another, the very opposite, is intriguing. In the final analysis, it boils down to a culture’s openness to new ideas and experiences, its collective open mindedness. The ancient Chinese had closed minds; the medieval Europeans, open.
            Today when some foreigners arrive in a new country, and on encountering an alien culture, would retreat, fearing it would “contaminate” their pristine values. They would close ranks and congregate in their own little ghettoes, refusing to integrate with the native majority. We see this in America as well as Malaysia.
            Others view their new experiences as open and endless learning opportunites. Some are grateful to be given a new lease on life after escaping the wretchedness of their native land. Eastern Europeans who came to America early in the last century were grateful and thus more than eager to join the American mainstream. They readily gave up their old ways to integrate as quickly as possible into their new society. They learned English quickly and changed their names to make them sound more Anglo-Saxon, as with Pawlinsky morphing into the less jaw-breaking Paul.
            Even when they were actively being discriminated against, and the early Jews, Irish and Italians in America definitely were, they continued to adopt American ways. They did not rush to build Italian or Jewish schools; instead they built their own English schools so their children would not be handicapped in integrating into mainstream American society. They did not consider such actions as repudiating or denigrating their own culture. Far from it! They realized that their own culture and ways of life would more likely survive if they were to thrive and be successful in their adopted land.
            Today St. Patrick’s Day and Octoberfest are celebrated more exuberantly in Chicago and Milwaukee respectively than in Dublin or Berlin.
            It is tempting to attribute the contrasting reactions of early immigrants to America from Europe to later ones from Asia and Latin America to the differences in circumstances that prompted them to emigrate. The Europeans were forcibly thrown out of their native lands through pogroms or wars. In contrast, recent Asian and Latin American immigrants crossed the border voluntarily, for the most part (the South Vietnamese being the most recent notable exception). The Europeans did not ever want to return to their homelands. By contrast, many recent Hispanics consider their stay in America temporary, remaining just long enough to accumulate some money so they could return and live comfortably back in their native land. As such, they do not feel compelled to learn English or in any way integrate into American society.
            A similar “temporary abode” mentality occurred with immigrants from China and India into Malaysia early in the last century. Brought in by the colonials to work the tin mines and rubber plantations, their mindset was to work hard, accumulate enough savings, and then balik Tongsan (return to their motherland, China). Hence there was little need to learn the local language or adapt to local culture. They remained insular, xenophobic, and closed-minded.
            They were completely different from the Chinese men and women who came much earlier and voluntarily settled in the Straits Settlement, the Peranakan. They absorbed many of the elements of Malay culture, including the language and attire. They were not obsessed with balik Tongsan. When the British were in charge, those Chinese learned English; in independent Malaysia, they learned Malay and worked with the majority Malays.
            The challenge for Malays and non-Malays in this global era is to cultivate an open mind because the alternative means depriving yourself of new opportunities.
Next:  Emigration as Liberation

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Liberation Through Information

Liberation Through Information
M. Bakri Musa
In the past, the challenge of stirring people out of their comfort zone and igniting their imagination is compounded by their physical isolation. Today, the digital waves penetrate the thickest of coconut shells. Even the most remote villages now have access to the Internet. In the past the expression was, “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Gay Paree!” Today, Gay Paree comes to them, thanks to the digital revolution.
            Digital technology levels the playing field; it also opens up a limitless world of news, information, and viewpoints, as well as opportunities. This leveling means that in the cyber world, David can have the same presence as Goliath; similarly, the village idiot and Einstein. Without the capacity for critical thinking one could easily mistake Goliath for David or the village idiot for Einstein. The consequences to the former could be physically devastating; for the latter, intellectually stunting.
            That is not the only downside to the digital revolution. Consider the crude attempts by UMNO to influence public opinion by paying bloggers who are sympathetic to its cause. Then there is China, equally clumsy, rewarding those who post pro-government sentiments on anti-government websites. Both attempts of idiots posing as Einsteins are garish and ineffective. Prostitutes, whether literal or metaphorical, are easily spotted. To those capable of critical analyses, fake news and “alternative facts” remain as such no matter how they are presented.
            More sinister is the use of the Internet by the state to spy on its citizens. At its crudest there is Iran using images posted on Facebook to trace anti-government activists. More sophisticated is the data-mining software to track the activities of citizens. This penchant for violating citizens’ privacy and rights is a common practice not only with authoritarian regimes like China but also such supposed champions of freedom as America.
            While the Internet brings an abundance of news and data it requires one to have some capacity for critical thinking to sift through them. If we lack this faculty we would end up focusing only on those viewpoints that support our preconceived notions, as with UMNO supporters reading (and believing) only The New Straits Times and Utusan Melayu, while those in the opposition, Malaysia Today*[1] and Malaysiakini. This “confirmation bias” is the bad news; it contributes to deepening polarization which is potentially disastrous for a plural society like Malaysia. Far from opening up minds, this confirmation bias closes them.
            This pernicious trend is also seen in America despite its more educated citizens and their familiarity with a broad diversity of views. Conservative Americans increasingly tune to Fox News and read the Wall Street Journal exclusively; liberals, CNN and the New York Times. As a result, America today is more polarized.
            The solution is not to have a single source of news (those in power would love that so they could control it) but to encourage as many viewpoints and news sources as possible while teaching citizens to think critically and have an open mind.
            This is the crucial role of a responsible media. This cannot simply be wished for; the government must actively nurture and be committed to this instead of thwarting it, as the authorities do now.
            Having the media in private rather than government hands would not ensure this either. American media is private, and through that they have successfully projected a facade of independence. However, it is only that, a facade. In reality they are beholden to their owners’ private agenda and or special interest groups, in particular their advertisers. In their coverage of the Middle East for example, an area of vital interest to Americans, the US media has been particularly myopic and subservient to these interest groups as well as their owners’ agenda.
            Consider the coverage of major international events including and especially the recent uprisings in the Arab world by Al Jazeera, BBC, and the CBC, all government- owned (Qatar, Britain and Canada respectively). Those have been far superior to that of the so-called “independent” American media like the main networks.
            Even in America, partly government-funded PBS trumps the venerable, privately-held CBS. What is obvious is that ownership is not the key; the critical element is the professionalism of journalists and editors, and their ability to free themselves from their superiors, be they corporate executives and owners or ruling bureaucrats and politicians.
            Journalists are no saints. Consider the recent “documentaries” by British FBC Media on the Malaysian palm oil industry and “interviews” with Prime Minister Najib that were aired on major international media. It turned out that even the esteemed BBC and CNN could be fooled into believing blatant infomercials as documentaries. Those “interviews” with Najib were basically paid commercials, with the money going not to the network but the PR firm. Far from appearing statesman-like, Najib looked like a desperate “John” being tricked by a cheap streetwalker powdered up to look high class.
            There was a time when American journalists were the most trusted, personified by the likes of Walter Cronkite, Albert J. Morrow, and more recently, Tom Brokaw and Bernie Shaw. With the proliferation of television channels available through cable, there is now fragmentation of and consequent scramble for viewers. The result is a race to the bottom, catering to the lowest common denominator with hard news being replaced by the salacious and sensational. No wonder the overall audiences for the major networks have declined. Today nobody takes any notice of the news anchors of the major networks. They are more like over-exposed celebrities than trusted journalists; they have lost their gravitas and influence. The Annual White House Correspondents Dinner vie with the Oscars as the social event of the year. Like actors, these journalists revel in the world of make believe.
            I have no problem with the major media outlets being government owned, such as Bernama and RTM, or controlled by the major political parties (NST, The Star, Harakah). I just wish that their staff, from cub reporters to senior editors, are aware of their awesome responsibility to inform the public and thus the need to be professional. They should at least appreciate the difference between solid objective news coverage and advocacy editorial commentaries. For this to become a reality they have to be professionally trained.
            I am not a fan of “J” schools, but I do wish that Malaysian reporters and editors could have the chance to go beyond just being “Form Five” journalists (middle school graduates). They should have broad-based liberal educations and be capable of exercising independent judgment. They should not be content with regurgitating press releases or being carma (contraction of cari makan; hired hands) journalists.
            Only with a responsible professional media could we prepare our citizens to appreciate the Jeffersonian wisdom:  Every difference in opinion is not a difference of principle.
            Leaders have a critical role in fostering this climate of healthy discourse; they must set the example. It is for this reason that I cringe whenever I hear Prime Minister Najib labeling opposition leaders as “traitors” and “anti-nationals.” Najib dishonors himself and his office when he resorts to such childishness. His followers are only too willing to ape him; monkey see, monkey do.
            We must demand a higher standard of personal decency from our leaders. We should not tolerate it when they descend into the gutter. When they do, we should never follow them. We should expect more displays of civility as demonstrated by the recent (2009) photograph of Prime Minister Najib and Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim enjoying teh tarik in the lobby of Parliament. Sadly, such class acts are becoming rare. Instead today we have Prime Minister Najib calling his predecessor Mahathir a traitor, and the latter likewise labelling his successor a thief.
Next:  Modern Technology as Instruments of Liberation
Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

[1] Malaysia Today has today (2017) switched sides; it is now the mouth piece of UMNO.