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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, December 17, 2017

Opening Minds Through Trade and Commerce

Opening Minds Through Trade and Commerce
M. Bakri Musa

Let there be amongst you traffic and trade by mutual goodwill. —Surah An-Nisaa (The Women) (4:29)
Long before there was the National Language Act, and certainly long before today’s outspoken champions of Malay language were even born, Chinese hawkers and Tamil kacang putih (fried nuts) sellers plying their trade in Malay kampungs knew that to be successful they had to speak the language of their customers. Nobody asked or demanded that they do so but intuitively they learned that they could not make their living if they could not speak Malay.
            Those traders went beyond, at least the successful ones. They also learned a little bit about Malay culture, or at least those elements that would impact their trade. For example, they changed their hours of trading during fasting months and would include additional offerings during Hari Raya.
            Those hawkers also figured out something else; put beer and bacon on their carts and they would lose their Malay customers overnight. Both may be highly profitable and would add Chinese housewives to the customer base, but that expansion would not make up for the loss of the Malay market.
            Those small-time entrepreneurs knew the secret to any successful business:  know and cater to your customers. The best way of doing that is to speak their language and understand their culture. German Chancellor Willy Brandt said it best, “If I’m selling to you, then I speak your language. If you want me to buy from you, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen [then you have to speak German].” The only official language, or the one that counts, is that of your customers. This is also the wisdom of successful taxi drivers.
            To digress, Malay language will never amount to much, meaning not many would want to speak or learn it, unless Malays become a major economic force. Then people would want to speak Malay because they want to sell to us. Look at Mandarin today with China’s growing economic might. People are now learning Mandarin in order to tap the huge China market.
            Understanding your customers and appreciating their perspective is vital to success, and learning their language is an effective way of achieving both. As Native American Indians would put it, walk in your customers’ moccasins. That wisdom goes further because before you can do that, you first have to remove your own footwear.
            If your customers are sufficiently different from you in terms of race, culture, or social class, walking in their moccasins gives you a whole new set of experiences and perspectives. It opens up your mind, and that all begins with your willingness to cast away, however briefly, your old familiar mental moccasins.
            It is not surprising that the most cosmopolitan and open-minded communities are sited along trade routes, as with the settlements along the old silk road that binds the people of Asia with the West and the rest of the world. Their trading activities effectively overcome cultural and other prejudices.
            Malacca’s strategic location midway on the maritime trade route between east and west made it a thriving center for trade. Through trade, its inhabitants became among the most open, progressive, and cosmopolitan. A more recent and very successful example is China. Through its embrace of capitalism and free trade, China today is more open and much less xenophobic. It laps up everything the outside world has to offer, a far cry from what it was a mere generation or two ago under the austere and socialistic Mao. Consider our chauvinistic Malay FELDA farmers. Today with China buying Malaysian palm oil, those farmers now have a far different view of China. Even UMNO, once stridently anti-communist, now sends observers to the Chinese Communist Party Congress.
            Traders have a different view of their customers, especially their best ones. Today, with China being the biggest purchaser of US Treasury notes, American leaders are less inclined to lecture the Chinese on human rights abuses. Prospects for global peace are now enhanced with China and America being major trading partners.
            The same dynamics occur across the Strait of Taiwan. If China and Taiwan could build on their current trade and commercial relationships, within a generation the issue of unity would become mute. Consider that the initial European Common Market, now the European Union, was essentially a trade association; it brought together two ancient enemies–the French and Germans–together. Given time EU may achieve the same with the Greeks and Turks, as well as the various factions in the Balkans.
            Economist Albert O. Hirschman wrote in his The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph that commercial society made humans “sweet,” courteous, and civilized, viewing one another as potential partners in mutually beneficial market exchanges, rather than as clan members to be helped or clan enemies to be killed.
            He quoted the Scottish historian William Robertson, “Commerce tends to wear off those prejudices which maintain distinctions and animosity between nations. It softens and polishes the manners of men.”
            Western intellectuals brag–and often–that humanity had its dramatic improvement in its standard of living and unprecedented increase in economic output with the introduction of capitalism in the 18th Century in Western Europe. That statement is no longer true. China in the 1980s and beyond lifted more people out of poverty and did so in a short time (a few decades instead of over a century) as in Western Europe. It would be stretching the definition of capitalism to assert that China’s version, with its heavy state involvement and intervention plus very limited private ownership, is still free enterprise.

            The only commonality between the capitalism of Western Europe and that with “Chinese characteristics” is that both encourages and are open to trade and commerce.

Next:  Futility of Unity Sans Economic Ties

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

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Personal Freedom - The Foundational Strength of Islam

Personal Freedom – The Foundational Strength of Islam
M. Bakri Musa

(Based on a talk given at the South Valley Islamic Community, Morgan Hill, California, on the occasion of Mawlid Nabi, December 2, 2017)

(Second of Two Parts)

In his book Muhammad:  Man and Prophet, Saudi writer M. A. Salahi recalled his father’s advice. That is, love for Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., could only be demonstrated by following his teachings, not by singing his praises. Today Mawlid is observed in many places with endless singing of his praises, and only that. As for hadith and sunnah, they are far from being sources of enlightenment but instead become contentious among the faithful. They divide not only Muslims but also between Muslims and non-Muslims.

         In this Mawlid I will depart from tradition and will refrain from singing his praises or reciting his hadith. Instead I will highlight Muhammad’s achievements. Those are beyond dispute and should inspire us. I will relate only four, three before he received his prophethood, and one before.

         First, he transformed the ancient Bedouins whose identity and loyalty were tied to family, clan, and tribe to one that transcended all those and be based only on the belief in the oneness and supremacy of Allah. Later, others joined in. Today Muslims are the most ethnically and culturally diverse group. Islam can rightly claim to be the first and continues to be the most powerful and successful globalizing force.

         Second, he led the Arabs’ through a seismic change in their attitude towards women. Where once women were part of the inheritance, only slightly above the camels and date trees in status, through Islam women were entitled to a share of the inheritance. Not an equal one to be sure, but still a radical change from the status quo and a universe ahead of what was then prevailing elsewhere. With that cultural sea change, the associated dehumanizing of women and such gruesome practices as female infanticide vanished.

         Third, he altered the Arabs’ vengeful “an eye for an eye” sense of justice to one that emphasized mercy, forgiveness, and restitution. He steered them away from revenge, and with it the endless cycle of generational clan disputes and tribal warfare. While he eschewed an eye for an eye, Mohammad, s.a.w, (and Islam) was not for turning the other cheek. Instead he and Islam opted for “soft vengeance.” That is, showing a better and more just way than endless destructive revenge.

         Those were monumental achievements and the ensuing changes transformational. They all occurred within the memories of his companions.

         There were those who viewed Mohammad, s.a.w., as but a mere Messenger, a human fax machine as it were, through whom God sent down His revelations. With that, miracles happened and Islam became a major force. As such we could dispense with hadith and sunnah. Even a cursory reading of history would disabuse one of that romantic and simplistic notion.

         Those early Bedouins were tough customers. If Muslims today argue over hadith and sunnah, those early Arabs questioned the very Koran and Mohammad’s prophethood. This culture of questioning, learning, and the associated critical thinking that it nurtured, endured long after Mohammad, s.a.w. Today we look longingly to that long-ago “Golden Age of Islam,” forgetting what it was that made our faith and community flourish. We have replaced the cherished, productive, and pristine values of tajdid (constant renewal and vigorous learning) with taqlid (unquestioning acceptance and blind obedience). We also limited those who could partake in religious discourses. We opted for exclusivity over inclusivity, which in turn breeds intolerance and closed mindedness. Both inhibit learning and progress.

         Koranic commands notwithstanding, emulating Muhammad, s.a.w., or achieving even a tiny sliver of his success would be a daunting task.

         That brings me to his fourth achievement, although by chronology his first. Before Allah chose him to be His Last Rasul, Mohammad was a trader working on a caravan owned by someone else. If he didn’t deliver, he would earn nothing. He was such a diligent and productive worker that his employer Khatijah found him to be indispensable. That resulted in her proposing marriage to him. To use the language of modern business, she made him an equity partner!

         Marrying your boss, (or the son or daughter thereof) is a tried and true path to advancement. Such opportunities are necessarily limited. What is not is to emulate Muhammad’s work ethics, that is, be productive and make yourselves indispensable, or as close to that as possible, to your employer. That is within everyone’s capacity.

         I advised my children when they had their first job to remember one thing. If they were being paid one dollar, then they should give at least three dollars’ worth of service in return. The first to cover the pay, the second for overhead–with such soft costs as social security and unemployment insurance as well as hard ones as with providing an office. The third is the employer’s profit. A worker who gives less has not earned his pay. That deficit is haram.

         Few of us would be privileged, talented, or courageous enough to venture out to be entrepreneurs like Khadijah and Mohammad. An honest, trustworthy businessman (or woman) will be in the company of prophets, the truthful, and martyrs, goes a familiar hadith. In Islam, the paycheck giver is held in much higher esteem than the paycheck receiver. The biblical wisdom (it is better to give than to receive) is never more apt in Islam than with respect to paychecks. Such an ethos makes sense; it benefits the economy and society–no entrepreneur, no paychecks; no business, no workers. That is the foundational wisdom of that hadith.

         Islam’s high regard for entrepreneurs and business owners is not misplaced for another reason. When you have an enterprise to run, you view the world and others differently. They are no longer whites or blacks, natives or pendatangs (foreigners), Muslims or non-Muslims rather your potential clients, customers, and partners. Such a mindset leads to greater harmony. To an ice cream peddler it does not matter whether his dollar comes from a thirsty congressman or an illegal immigrant.

         Remaining faithful to the sunnah and seerah is a challenge. Many are thus satisfied with simplistic aping rather than emulating, as with having long beards and acquiring multiple wives.

         What is within the capacity of all of us is to emulate Muhammad the trader before he was chosen prophet. That is, be honest, productive, and dependable so as to bring added value to your employer. In Islam, they and other paycheck givers are the blessed ones; they are truly following in the path and are thus worthy emulators of our holy prophet.

         More important than for us as individuals to emulate the prophet is for us collectively as a community to aspire for the achievements of those early Muslims. If they could transcend their clan and tribal identities, we too should our race, color, national origin, gender identity, sexual preferences, and other labels we paste onto ourselves and others. We should give full meaning to our core belief that we are all children of Adam.

         If those ancient Muslims succeeded in elevating women from being part of the inheritance to acquiring a share of it, we too should aspire to a similar scale of achievement. We should strive to make women have full parity not only in inheritance but also all other spheres. The prophet’s achievements should be our inspiration, not define the limits. How can a father look at his daughter and say that she is worth only half that of her brothers? My sons would never let their sister be thus treated.

         We should go beyond and support the emancipation of not only women but also others now oppressed.

         Islamic thinking distinguishes between the obligations of the individual (Fardu Ayn) and that of the community (Fardu Kifayyah). That is false dichotomy. If we as individuals are dependable, productive, and treat others with respect, then our community would follow suit. If our society already has excellent social services and efficient garbage collection for example, that does not free us from our obligation to take care of those less fortunate and to clean the environment when we see it being despoiled.

         I am proud of our South Valley Islamic Community in this regard. Women are very much full participants in our organization. They are well represented on our governing board, and we have had three women Presidents in our short history. I am also heartened that our Friday prayers are well attended by women.

         Our organization through the dynamic leadership of Imam Ilyas is an active participant in the Interfaith Council, as well as working with other faith groups as with St. Joseph’s Lord’s Table in feeding the poor and homeless, and with Cecelia’s Closet in providing warm clothing for the homeless during these cold months. We have a children’s toy drive for the holiday season. Thank you to those who have generously donated.

         Those achievements of the early Muslims should inspire us as individuals as well as a community. While it would be presumptuous to think that we as individuals could emulate Allah’s Chosen One, it is within all of us to model ourselves after Mohammad the trader before he was chosen as prophet. That is, by being dependable, trustworthy, and productive; striving to be paycheck givers instead of receivers. If we are the latter, we should work hard to give our employers extra in our work. It is also within our community’s capability to emulate those exemplary early Muslim communities.

         That is what Mawlid Nabi means to me as an individual and as a member of the community.