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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.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

The Futile Search For Unity Sans Economic Ties

The Futile Search For Unity Sans Economic Ties
M. Bakri Musa
Right after Malaysia’s independence in 1957 there was a yearning for the country to be closer with our fellow “Malay” states in the archipelago–Philippines and Indonesia–to form a loose confederation, Maphilindo. Others less ambitious (or more insular) wanted just Malaysia and Indonesia (Malindo), minus the predominantly Catholic Philippines. Despite the seeming commonality of culture, language and religion, Malindo did not even get started. Instead what we had konfrontasi, and a very bloody one, with Indonesia.
            Had those early leaders been more rational and less emotional, they could begin with a more modest and achievable goal, like encouraging trade between the two countries, beginning first with the free flow of goods and services, followed later with the freer flow of people. Had that path been chosen, trade and other relationships between the two countries would have by now greatly expanded. Creatively nurtured, it could have developed into a nucleus of what could be a Southeast Asian version of the European Union.
            Driven purely by impulse and emotions to pursue too ambitious a goal and without knowing the pitfalls, Malindo collapsed as soon as it was conceived. The result was worse than had the idea had not been mooted. The two countries were lucky that the ensuing konfrontasi did not destroy both nations.
            Today the two countries are even further apart. It is much easier for someone in Kelantan to buy Pramoedya’s book from Amazon.com in America than from its publisher in Jakarta. It is also easier to transfer funds from Seremban to Seattle than to Surubaya.
            If the original Maphilindo concept was more emotional than rational, then the subsequent ten-state association, ASEAN, is more ambitious than realistic. Today ASEAN is nothing more than a “talk shop,” with their leaders enthralling each other with their skits and amateur talent shows at their annual gatherings. ASEAN is just too big and diverse without taking into account or even acknowledging the vast differences between them. There is little shared commonality except for geography. The results showed. Malaysia’s intra-ASEAN trade is minimal, except with Singapore.
            We underestimate the value of trade and commerce in generating goodwill. I venture that the supreme merit of capitalism is precisely this, generating goodwill between trading partners. This far outweighs the other benefits, including profits. The world is far safer today with China and America being intertwined economically.
            Consider Malaysia’s perennial race dilemma. Many naively believe that if only Malaysians could speak the same language, share a common culture, or subscribe to the same faith, national unity would be that much more attainable. Current attempts at making Malay culture and language the defining elements of Malaysian life reflect this sentiment. Others fantasize that if only the political parties were not race based, racial integration would be greatly enhanced. Malays still hang on to the forlorn hope that if only we follow the one “pure” and “true” Islam, we would be all united and our problems magically disappear.
            Such delusions are based on flawed and muddled thinking. The Koreans share the same heritage, culture, and language yet that does not stop them from killing each other, given half the chance. The more promising and enduring path to unity is not through culture, language, politics, or even religion but economics, specifically the embrace of trade and free enterprise.
            Capitalism could be the effective and enduring solution to Malaysia’s race problems. It is also the most efficient economic system for producing goods and services, and also to effect substantive social and cultural changes. Once Malaysians view each other and the world not in terms of race or nationality but as potential customers, business partners, and sources of capital, understanding and with that peace and goodwill would follow.
            Trade and commerce are engines of economic growth, and this in turn brings more than just material comforts. As Harvard’s Benjamin M. Friedman noted in his The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, economic growth brings with it greater tolerance of and generosity to the disadvantaged. This insight is worth emphasizing.
            Capitalism does not differentiate between race, national origin, political persuasion, or religious belief. Money is money, whether it comes from your own kind or foreigners. Those Malay villagers would not boycott the hawkers because they were Chinese, but the villagers would if they were being cheated or sold substandard goods.
            One would expect socialism with its egalitarian ideals to bring people together. It failed, in Malaysia and elsewhere, reflecting the gulf between theory and practice. We are all for egalitarianism but not when we are all equally poor. Socialism failed because it could not produce the goods and services. For Malays, we associate socialism with atheistic communism; the communists resorting to terrorism during the Emergency certainly also did not help the socialist cause.
            The New Economic Policy’s primary objective was to usher Malays towards capitalism so we could play an active role in the economy. Beyond that, with Malays becoming more involved in commerce and trading, we would begin to look at fellow Malaysians or others less as immigrants or foreigners but more as potential clients and customers. That would put a very different and positive perspective on race relations. In many ways, we are already seeing this with the noticeable change in the attitude of FELDA farmers towards the Chinese, at least the mainland variety, now that China is the main purchaser of our palm oil.
            On a higher level, Malays used to condemn the colonialists for bringing in hordes of immigrants from China and India to work on the tin mines and rubber estates. Our current race problems are rooted in that colonial policy. Today UMNO-linked ersatz capitalists bring in the Bangladeshis. What future problems await the nation?
            Malay (specifically UMNO) embrace of capitalism is very recent. At one time the term kaum kapitalis (capitalist class/hordes) was unmistakably derogatory, conjuring images of heartless businessmen of Dickens’ era, intent on exploiting the masses in the greedy pursuit of profits. As capitalists then were also colonialists, it was easy to hate them. With Malays now being capitalists themselves, aided substantially by the state, capitalism has a decidedly new aroma, even if it were only the crony or ersatz variety.
            Malays in the other parties are still enamored with socialism. PAS regards capitalism, specifically its acceptance of interests, as “un-Islamic,” conveniently forgetting that our prophet, s.a.w., was an accomplished trader and thus a capitalist at heart.
            Thanks to the Malay embrace of capitalism and free markets, we are no longer passive bystanders in the modern economy. With that, race relations have decidedly improved. Economic crises today no longer have or quickly acquire racial undertones the way they did in the past. Whereas before, whenever there were rumors of shortage of basic staples and the consequent price increase and hoarding, the blame would always fall on those “greedy” Chinese retailers. Today with the increasing number of Malay traders, this is no longer the case. Recent complaints about bus fare increases for example, were directed to the owners of the bus companies who are now mostly Malays.
            Consider that the 1997 economic crisis had minimal racial repercussions despite the fact that many of the high-flying casualties were Malays. Likewise, the pain of the recent reduction in petroleum subsidy cut across race; economic imperatives successfully breaching racial boundaries. Those were all positive developments, at least in terms of race dynamics. It also reaffirms the wisdom of NEP in “eliminating race with economic function.”
Next:  Integrating The Private Sector
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


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