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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 30, 2018

Soft barrirs To Malay Participation In Commerce

Barriers To Malay Participation In Commerce
M. Bakri Musa

Second of Four Parts

Soft barriers to Malay participation in commerce include our personal habits and expectations, as well as our social and cultural values. Those barriers may be soft but they are formidable. The others, being more definable as with our lack of skills, necessary infrastructures, and capital, are remediable.

Malay society has just emerged from rural, subsistence living. Transiting from an agrarian to the money economy is a transformational event, with the accompanying changes socially disruptive and personally dislocating. Those challenges are not unique unto Malay society; they burden all traditional ones.

The concept of money is alien in such societies. Money is equated with greed and unbridled materialism. To inquire of the monetary value of anything or service was tantamount to insulting its owner or provider. Money is also equated with greed and ostentation. The obscene examples set by Malay leaders like Najib and his wife Rosmah only exacerbate that perception.

Trading in traditional societies is essentially bartering. The worth of exchanging a few coconuts in return for fixing a leaky roof lies not with the monetary value of the goods or deeds, rather the goodwill generated, one villager helping another in time of need.

Imagine the difficulty such societies would have in adjusting to a money economy. If this were to be imposed precipitously and from the outside, as with colonialism, free-flow immigration, or unrestrained globalization, the problems would be compounded.

Often such a society would react in one of two ways. It either withdraws, not wanting anything to do with this alien value system, or else embraces it blindly and uncritically, taking it to the obscene limits.
The first is seen with many Muslim countries, North American natives, and today’s Myanmar. They continue to pay the terrible price–economic stagnation, wasted opportunities, and worst of all lost hope for their people.

With the second, there would be the adoption of only the superficialities and excesses, as in immediate post-Mao China. In mature capitalistic societies there are effective taxation systems with redistributionist elements, an adequate social safety net, and where philanthropy is an honored tradition.

In China you are considered stupid if you do not cheat on your taxes. As for a safety net, don’t depend on other than your kin. As for charity, when Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, two billionaires known for their charitable deeds as much as capitalistic instincts, visited China to interest its newly rich in philanthropy, they were greeted with silence if not derision.

It is the rare society that gets it right immediately. For most, the hope is that they would learn and adapt lest those excesses lead to gross inequities and instability. Even in the West today, the major challenge is not economic development rather inequities.

Today’s leaders of China are aware of the negative consequences to the excesses of its politburo members; hence their harsh and gruesome remedies, as with public executions. There is as yet no comparable abhorrence in Malay society to the corruption and flamboyance of its elite. Despite the boxes of cold cash hauled from Najib’s personal residences, many still defend him. The sultans continue indulging in obscene luxuries, on state expense of course. Najib keeps smiling, and Malays cheer him, as he is being hauled to court facing yet another corruption charge. Tiada maruah! (Amoral!)

To change that cultural value remains Malay society’s biggest challenge.
Only not too long ago Malay society was deep in its subsistencekampungmode where gotong-royong(communal effort) in the barn-raising tradition of the Old West was the norm. Trading of goods and services using money were alien concepts; you helped each other, with no financial considerations.

With independence, Malays were thrown into the money economy precipitously, without any transition or guidance. The immigrants by default and out of necessity had to adapt during colonial rule to the money economy in order to survive. They had no social or physical support system a lathe kampung. This early entry into the money economy conferred significant advantages, a fact not appreciated by Malays as we wallow in our collective self-blame lament. The immigrants’ success, whether in Malaysia or America, owes much to this.

No surprise then that Malays at the dawn of our country’s independence were staunch anti-capitalists. To Malays then, the termkaum kapitalis(capitalist hordes) was derogatory and contemptible, synonymous withkaum kolonialist. That changed with independence when UMNO leaders accumulated untold wealth by becoming capitalists, even if only the crony or ersatz variety.

As in early post-Mao China, Malays absorbed only the primitive or animalistic form of capitalism, its raw exploitative version, its quick-bucks and short-term mindset. Also like China, corruption, collusion, and rent-seeking activities soon became the norm. It is not a surprise that there is no public outcry to the ruthlessness with which the Chinese dealt with their corrupt officials.

With the dearth of successful Malay businessmen and entrepreneurs, one would expect the few successful ones to be deified, or at least be viewed as modern heroes, as in America and the West generally. Far from that; instead they are reviled.

The reason is obvious. In America one could without difficulty discern how Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos get their wealth (by revolutionizing personal computing and shopping respectively). In contrast, the only commonality among successful Malay businessmen is their close association with the political elite. One would be hard pressed to even identify their companies!

These crony and ersatz capitalists in our midst are the ones who drive out the genuine variety.

If those are not formidable enough barriers, then there is the other significant soft obstacle to Malay entry into commerce–our religion, or to be more accurate, our myopic interpretation of it.

Next:  Third of Four Parts:  Religious Barriers

Based on the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind. Its updated and American edition will be released next month.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Barriers To Malay Engagement In Commerce

Barriers To Malay Engagement In Commerce
M. Bakri Musa

First of Four Parts

The positive impact on the economy aside, encouraging members of a society to engage in trade and commerce is also the best and quickest way to change their attitude to and relationship with others, both within and beyond that society. Malaysia should leverage this insight.

Specifically for Malays, engaging in commerce would make us view others less as pendatangs out to grab Tanah Melayu (Malay Land) from us but more as potential clients, partners, and customers. That could only enhance race relations. We would also blunt the sharp edges between “them” and “us.” This by far is the most consequential impact of capitalism, quite apart from our contributing to the economy.

            When Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., set up his community in Medina, the first thing he did was build public marketplaces and trading areas. He did not charge the community as he wanted to encourage them to partake in commerce and thus interact with each other. That was the best and quickest way to integrate the city’s diverse population, between the immigrant pendatangMeccan Muslims (Muhajiruns) and the host (Ansars), as well as between Muslims and non-Muslims (Jews, Christians, and pagan Arabs).

            Note, the Prophet did notbuild ornate mosques to showcase the new faith. Muslims today ignore this implicit important message. Don’t build mosques, focus on the community first.

     Trade and commerce are engines of economic growth, and those in turn bring more than just material comforts. As Harvard’s Benjamin Friedman noted in his The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, economic growth brings with it greater tolerance of and generosity to the disadvantaged. And both are core Islamic values.

Capitalism does not differentiate between race, national origin, political persuasion, or religious belief. A ringgit is a ringgit, whether it comes from your own kind or foreigners, Muslims or non-Muslims.

Prospects for world peace are enhanced considerably now that both China and America are each other’s biggest trading partners, the current tariff tit-for-tat between the two notwithstanding. Likewise, I am less worried about war between China and Taiwan now that cross-strait commerce has boomed into the hundreds of billions (US dollars) as compared to single digits back in the early 1990s.

The many early irritants between Singapore and Malaysia soon after separation did not escalate because of strong existing trade and financial ties between the two. In contrast, Malaysia went to war with Indonesia in the 1960s, a fellow serumpun (“same root”) state, over much less consequential if not silly reasons. There were no other ties, trade or otherwise, safe for emotions to bind the two. That remains true today. Commercial transactions between the two remain meager–Indonesian maids in Malaysia repatriating their poverty-level pay.

Malay villagers of yore did not boycott the kampung hawkers because they were Chinese. Those villagers would if they were being cheated or sold substandard goods.

This is a long preamble to my central thesis, that is, the answer to Malaysia’s perennial race problem lies not with beating up the drums of nationalism, a common language, or single-stream school, but to encourage Malay engagement in trade and commerce.

The barriers to this are both “soft” as well as “hard.” The former is more formidable and includes our personal habits and expectations, as well as our social and cultural values. The hard ones by contrast, as with our lack of skills, know how, necessary infrastructures, and capital are readily remediable.

Based on the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind. Its updated and American edition will be released next month.

Next  Part Two of Four Parts:   Soft And Hard Barriers

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Prize Our Padi, Uproot The Weeds!

Prize Our Padi, Uproot The Weeds!
M. Bakri Musa*

I applaud lawyer-activist Siti Kassim for her “Siti Thot” column and commend The Starfor publishing it. Writing briefs is second nature to seasoned lawyers, so penning those essays per seis not the challenge. The courage is with her sharing her views, and for The Starto provide her the platform.

Malaysians know Siti for her unpopular (at least to officialdom) and dangerous crusades, as with exposing the pathetic plight of our Orang Asli whose God-given human rights are being trampled upon by the government. For that she had been arrested, with pictures of her clad in orange. Siti is also one of the few brave Malays who dares challenge the Islamic bureaucracy. She and her family have endured many abuses, not just verbal and not just from the uninformed.

            Writing in Malaysia is a hazardous endeavor. Ask Syed Hussin Ali and Raja Petra. The late Kassim Ahmad paid literally with his life. It is easy for me in California, shielded from Malaysia’s intrusive rules, to write freely; not so for Malaysians. Hence my respect and admiration for our Siti Kassims and Kassim Ahmads.

Malay-owned media like The New Straits Timesand Utusan Melayuhave abrogated their responsibilities to keep citizens informed. That reflects a lot on and is emblematic of what ails Malay society today. Those entrusted with their duties are not up to the task. Worse, they have corrupted their mission. Leaders do not lead but are content with blaming their followers. Teachers do not teach but indoctrinate their students. Ulama are mesmerized with their oratorical prowess and exquisite tajweedinstead of addressing the pressing problems of the ummah.

Islam in Malaysia is a lucrative commodity. It is also less a religion, more massive bureaucracy, a government within a government. At least political leaders are answerable to citizens, as Najib and his co-bandits in UMNO found out much to their sorrow last May. Not so these Islamist bureaucrats. With their government-issued mansions, generous pensions, and gleaming sedans they are even more insulated from the ummah.

When questioned, their haughty response is that they are answerable to a much “higher authority,” which means, no one. They are the Vatican of yore. When those nuns and priests are forced by modernity to be answerable to us mortals, many horrible things are exposed. Malays today are repeating that horrible chapter of human history.

AIDS, drug abuse, and abandoned babies are rampant. Malays are overrepresented among the marginalized and dysfunctional but one would not know that from the utterances of these ulama.

To them, anything not invented by the ancient Bedouins are haram; hence their obsession with ribaawithout understanding what the term meant conceptually and operationally during the prophet’s time. As some earlier semi-English literate scholars had translated ribaa as interest, Muslims today are consumed in a futile crusade against modern banking. They remain blind to the tremendous contributions to economic growth made possible through credit.

The reverse is even more true. Put an ancient Arabic label and bingo, it becomes halal, as with the obscene fees levied by so-called Islamic financial institutions.

To the ulama, the minutiae of accounting of religious brownie points is more important than justice or the intrinsic virtues of a good deed. For example, this many pahala(merit points) more for praying at a certain time and particular place! Seventy-two (not sixty or a hundred) virgins for a particular jihad act. No mention of the comparable rewards that await a righteous female!

            As a lawyer, Siti is adept at cross-examining witnesses to expose their lies and inconsistencies. Her column exposes the hollowness and hypocrisy of our leaders, educators, and ulama. In her “The Real Malay Dilemma,” Siti had this to say of those ardent, self-righteous “defenders” of Islam:  “… Islam does not need protection ….”

I would have added, “least of all by these jokers in JAKIM!”

            An earlier one on education, “…. it’s time to talk about the fundamental elephant in the room … when it comes to education reform in Malaysia–the number of hours dedicated to religion … and the influence of religion in Malaysian schools.”

            That’s obvious to many and for so long, but not to these ulama. Nor do they realize that this heavy burden, and the tragic life-long consequences, is being borne by Malays. This cruel reality eludes even our PhD-decorated new Minister of Education.

            Heed our kampung wisdom–Sayangkan padi, cabutkan rumput. Prize your padi, uproot the weeds. As a society, Malays have not uprooted our weeds; thus our padi does not thrive. Then we wonder at our meager harvest.

            We have gone beyond. We have, as my late father put it, bajakan lalang(pour the fertilizer on). On its own, lalangis a tenacious weed, sucking the nutrients out of the soil such that even the lowly earthworms could not survive. Imagine if we bajakan!

            Siti Kassim is our rare, premium padibut our sawah(rice field) is lalang-infested. The Ibrahim Alis and Jamal Yunoses have taken over. Worse, we bajakanthem.

Siti personifies the Koranic injunction,Amr bil Ma’ruf wa Nahy an al Munkar(approximate translation:  command good and forbid evil). And they harass her!

            A just Allah endows each community with its fair share of the gifted and talented. What we do with that divine gift determines our future. It is not enough to pray that Allah bequeaths us with our share of Siti Kassims. More crucial that we value and nurture them. Most of all we must weed out our lalangs–the Ibrahim Alis and Najib Razaks–so our Sitis could thrive and blossom.

*The writer’s American and updated edition of Liberating The Malay Mindwill be released in October 2018.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Time For Malays Own Quiet Revolution

Time For Malays’ Own Quiet Revolution
M. Bakri Musa

In the 1950s the dominant Irish Catholics were disparaged by their minority English-Protestant countrymen. Irish women were scorned as being obsessed with their catechisms and rosaries, that is, when they were not busy making babies. Their men meanwhile could not do without their whiskey as soon as Sunday mass was over. Ireland’s main export then was her young.

            Yet not too long ago upstart Ryan Air was making a bid for venerable British Airways, and Ireland is today a major force in the high-tech sector.

            Visit rural Quebec during that same period. The French-Canadians too were busy reciting their rosaries, with their young girls consumed with entering the convent and the men, the priesthood, that is, when they were not preoccupied demonstrating on the streets or celebrating St. Baptist Day. Meanwhile their leaders were frothing at the mouth blaming the English-Canadians.

            Today Bombardier is a global leader in commuter jet manufacturing, and Hydro Quebec the largest renewable power producer. The new President of Stanford University is a French-Canadian who grew up during that era and in that culture.

The Irish is one up. The descendent of one of her earlier exports would later become the President of the United States.

            There is a lesson here for Malays. Reduced to its essence, it is this. Give up the boisterous rallies ofMelayuBangkitor endless “Kongresses” on KetuananMelayu. Emulate the Irish and Quebecois with their Quiet Revolutions.

            How did they do it?

First, consider their leaders. The Quebecois had Robert Bourassa. Very unlike his many predecessors or contemporaries, Bourassa sported a Harvard MBA, not a diploma in French Studies from the local CollègeSt. Jean. He modernized the schools by getting rid of religious studies. He made those students learn science and mathematics as well as English, despite the era’s intense nationalism. He built junior colleges to prepare the young for higher education as well as for trade and vocational qualifications. In short, he gave them ample attractive alternatives to convents and seminaries.

By the time I was at McGill for my surgical training in the early 1970s, that institution which hitherto was exclusively Anglo-Saxon had many Beauchamps and Lapierres on its faculty.

The Father of Modern Ireland Sean Lemass, unlike Bourassa, had no fancy academic qualifications. Instead, he was a rabble rouser as a young man. The English jailed him for what would today be termed terrorist activities. He however had that rare capacity to learn and adapt. He recognized the importance of economic growth, outgrowing his earlier fascination with fiery rhetoric and armed revolutions. By 1973, two years after his death, Ireland was in the European Union. His famed “A rising tide lifts all boats” quote was later picked up by President Kennedy.

You do not need a fancy degree to be a great leader, as shown by Lemass. Having advanced academic qualifications would not guarantee your making wise decisions. The current Mentri Besar of Trengganu and Minister of Education, both PhDs, would disabuse you of that assumption. More important is your willingness to learn and adapt, as well as view reality more clearly.

Back to Bourassa, what I remember about him was his soft hesitant voice, humble unruffled demeanor, and heavily-accented English. His speeches bordered on the soporific, unlike the mesmerizing oratory of another Quebecois leader of the era, Rene Levesque. While those qualities hid to many observers Bourassa’s sharp mind and crisp executive ability, his achievements did not, and were obvious to all.

Malays could learn much from the Irish and Quebecois, and Malay leaders from Lemass and Bourassa.

Quit the endless drawn-out congresses and disruptive rousing rallies. Buckle down to some serious work. For Malay leaders, don’t just tellpeople to work hard and be productive. Showthem how! Talk, anybody can, lah, as Malaysians would say.

Improve the schools, increase the hours devoted to STEM and English, and make MUET mandatory. Recruit English teachers from abroad, as the Koreans do, if you have to. After you have done all that, then you could shout that you have done everything and Malays refused to respond.

Don’t blame the Mat Rempits and Minah Karans. They are but manifestations of your failed policies. You don’t blame your kids for contracting malaria when you have not provided them with mosquito nets.

Divert the billions spent on the national car, imposing skyscrapers, and mega-ringgit GLCs to schools and universities. Then watch your people blossom. Theywould then create those things and many more.

Lemass went beyond; he exposed the Irish to different perspectives by liberating the press. He too had state media, but he used them to bring in foreign programs and viewpoints, not to control citizens’ access to information. Most of all he freed the Irish from the yoke of the clergy.

Today religion imprisons, not liberates, Malays. To paraphrase the Iranian writer Abdolkarim Soroush, religion is to Malays as handbrakes to cars when it should be the headlights. Islam as preached and practiced in Malaysia today does not shine the straight path forward but impedes Malays from moving ahead.

The Irish too have their own language, but they are all fluent in English. Their schools and universities use English. Some of the giants in English literature are Irish, and the Irish fought for their independence from the English!

All these endless Malay congresses and their long manifestos, as well as those chest-thumping rallies, are nothing more than expressions of our closed minds, our inability or more correctly, unwillingness to learn from others. Back in my old village they call that sombong si bodoh– the pride of the ignorant.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Mahathir Should Focus On NOT Creating Another Najib Razak

Mahathir Should Focus On Not Creating Another Najib Razak

Prime Minister Mahathir’s grand opening speech at the Kongress Masa Depan Bumiputra Dan Negara (Congress on the Future of Bumiputra and the Nation) on September 1, 2018, was a severe disappointment. It was as if he was in a time warp. There he was, hectoring his admirers and others who would listen to him with the same old refrain, if not the same old tired phrases. It was as if he had been awakened after 15 years of siesta and he was back to where he was when he left office in 2013.

            He resurrected the old, ugly hackneyed stereotypes about Malays. Listening to him it felt as if he was reading excerpts from his old The Malay Dilemmafirst published in 1970. He forgot that he had been given the rare responsibility and manifest privilege to lead the nation for well over two decades. That ought to have been enough time to remedy whatever it is that ails the Malays. Now that he is given a unique second chance, he sticks to the same old prescription that has now been proven to be not only ineffective but has made the problem even worse.

            The man lacks the humility and sense of introspection to even consider that just maybe the fault may rest with his policies or if not that, their implementations. It matters not, a brilliant policy badly executed would fail just as a bad policy carried out faithfully.

It would not occur to Mahathir to even ponder the possibility that the assumptions of his policies could be erroneous, or if correct, his remedies were inappropriate if not wrong. After all, he is brilliant. As one of his early admirers noted, he was the first Malay to qualify as a doctor without having to sit for any supplemental examinations. That ought to count for something! Beyond that, he succeeded in dethroning the hitherto thought formidable Najib Razak to become the world’ oldest chief executive of a nation. Even Mahathir admitted that he doubted whether he would succeed in doing that.

            Make no mistake. Malaysians ought to be grateful to Mahathir for getting rid of that crude, corrupt, and incompetent Najib. If not for Mahathir, that rogue would still be plundering Malaysia and the millions in cash hoarded in Najib’s personal residence would not have been uncovered.

            Before that gratitude gets too deep into Mahathir’s head, he should be reminded–and often–that he, Mahathir, more than anyone else was responsible for Najib’s rise to the highest office in the land. And before Najib, that equally inept Abdullah Badawi. As such, Mahathir is directly responsible for Malaysia’s wasted precious decade and a half.

Again, let it be stated lest Mahathir might forget (after all he is a Malay and forgets easily, quite apart from his advanced age), the rot and corruption of Malaysia began long before Najib. He merely brought both to a whole new, low obscene level.

My plea to Mahathir is please, don’t bother trying to save Malays. You have given that noble mission your best shot and for over two decades. Just move on. Time to give others the chance for that difficult mission.

Meanwhile I pray and hope that Mahathir focuses on notbequeathing unto Malaysia another Abdullah Badawi or Najib Razak. That would be an awesome responsibility and a monumental task in itself. The next Najib Razak might be slightly smarter and could prove even more difficult to dislodge. That would doom Malaysia forever.

Sad to note that thus far I have not seen any evidence that Mahathir had learned the painful lesson with Abdullah and Najib. Thatshould worry all Malaysians.