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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 23, 2018

Hadith And Sunnah Are Like Stars In The Heavenly Sky

Hadith And Sunnah Are Like Stars In The Heavenly Sky
M. Bakri Musa

The hundreds of thousands of hadith and sunnah(purported sayings and deeds of the holy prophet) are like stars in the heavenly sky.

            The ancient Mayans saw patterns in the night sky that changed with the seasons. With that, they created their calender to guide them as to when to plant and to celebrate. To the Polynesians, ancient and modern, those stars are their compasses as they sail the vast Pacific. Unlike modern GPS, those stars never run out of batteries!

During Mawlid Nabi (observance of the prophet’s birth), Muslims reflect on the wisdom of his words and recall his many exemplary deeds. Hadith and sunnah, like the heavenly stars, guide us. However, merely reciting them but without the associated reflections and actions would achieve little.

            That would be akin to primitive tribes who struck gongs, fired cannons, and sacrificed their virgins to frighten or appease the giant dragon from devouring their moon. When the eclipse was over, they congratulated themselves for having saved the universe.

            The Saudi writer Adil Salahi said it best in the epigraph of his biography of the Prophet, Muhammad:  Man And Prophet. Muslims would best demonstrate their love for the Prophet by following his teachings, not by singing his praises.

            Yet the sine qua nonof Mawlid Nabi, in Malaysia and elsewhere, is the endless singing of praises for the man. Malaysia goes further, with colorful parades, grand festivals, and glittering award ceremonies thrown in.

            As for emulating the prophet’s many sterling attributes, many are content with aping the man’s superficialities, as with sporting unshaven faces and donning overflowing robes. Others resort to acquiring child-brides and/or multiple wives. We imitate the prophet in the most able way that we can, was their lame pathetic excuse. They do not even bother to hide their carnal urges.

Those Muslims forget or never learned that the prophet’s actions and motivations were expressions of his charity. The four wives limit was to tame the then unlimited number, as with today’s obsessions with trophy cars, prized mares, and pedigreed bitches. It was also to redress the social problems of the many widowed through wars. As for child brides, at the time they were then the tried-and-true instruments for cementing inter-tribal bonds. Those noble sentiments are the very opposite of the priapic propensities of current corpulent Muslims.

            Then consider the hadith where the prophet predicted that his ummah(followers) would be divided into 73 sects, and all but one would be misled and hell-bound. This one hadith, more than any other, is instrumental to the on-going schisms in Islam, what with every Muslim believing that hissect is the only true one, the rest misguided.

The irony that this hadith is the most frequently expounded upon escapes me. I would have expected it to be buried deep in the archives, retrievable only by obsessive scholars. Far from enlightening the ummah, the glut of commentaries only adds to the confusion.

            The clarity and centrality of this hadith escape these erudite scholars. If your sect has only a 1-in-73 chance of being correct, that means you have a corresponding 72-in-73 (over 98.6 percent) probability of being misled! That is a certainty in statistics. A humbling thought!

Perversely, most Muslims conclude otherwise; they believe theyare among the super-select rightly-guided!

            A destructive corollary to that hubris is the messianic zeal to “correct” the “misled” to the point of intolerance of those who do not share your interpretations. You become exclusive, insular, and most dangerous of all, closed to new or different ideas. Such arrogance and certitudes are the very antithesis of the qualities demonstrated by our holy prophet.

            If you read the probabilities right, or are humble enough, and assume that you are among the misguided 72, that motivates you to learn from the others, believing that one of them would be rightl. You become inclusive, tolerant of others, and open to new ideas in the process.

With the religious freedom afforded me in America, I have benefited much from the teachings of the Wahhabis, Ismailis, Ahmaddiyahs, and others. From the Wahhabis, I appreciate the crucial role of rites and rituals in anchoring social and family stability; from the Ismailis, communal goals and efforts; and the Ahmaddiyahs, the importance of learning and social welfare. All those sects, and others, have enhanced my understanding of this great faith.

It is not a surprise that American Muslims are becoming more ecumenical, no longer identifying with any particular sect. With my mosque in California, we have been privileged to host visiting imams and ulama of various theological persuasions, to the benefit of our congregation.

By contrast, in Malaysia, if I were caught reading Shiite literature, I could be jailed under the Internal Security Act, the same draconian penalty imposed on the communists!

Back to that hadith, when asked as to which sect was the rightly-guided one, the prophet responded, “Ahl as Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah” (Those of the tradition and congregation).

Scholars and ulamas have long been engaged in endless puerile debates to identify this chosen, privileged group referred to by the prophet, and the accompanying quest for Muslim unity. The crusade for the return of the caliphate is a variant of this sentiment. We ignore that of the first four “rightly-guided” caliphs, three were assassinated – hardly the reflection of a united ummah even then.

“Just follow the Koran and the sunnah,” is another simplistic mantra endlessly and meaninglessly pursued. If only we were to do that, then Muslim unity would be assured. Again, here we forget or ignore that even when the prophet was alive, there were already vigorous debates on the very nature of the Koran as well as the prophet’s utterences. Imagine over 1400 years later!

We are more likely to achieve unity, or at least peace, not through coerced unanimity, but through greater understanding and better appreciation of the differences that necessarily exists among the ummah. Be inclusive. Accept and tolerate the differences amongs us. Better yet, embrace and celebrate our diversity.

That is the essence of the prophet’s rightly-guided Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah. That should be our northern star.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Social And Economic Drag of Islamic inheritance

The Social And Economic Drag Of Islamic Inheritance
M. Bakri Musa

The Regent of Pahang revealed last Ramadan that an estimated over RM 66.6 billion worth of assets remained unclaimed or tied up in Islamic probates. That included nearly two billion in cash, as well as titles to over one million pieces of land and other properties.

            Even with today’s devalued ringgit, that is a huge sum. It exceeds the estimated liabilities of that monster 1MDB, and would fund a quarter of the annual federal budget. Yet the Regent’s revelation was a yawner–it triggered no reaction. At the September 2018 Kongress Masa Depan Bumiputra (Congress on the Future of Bumiputras), not a word was uttered on the matter.

            The Regent too felt that his duty was done merely by his bringing up the issue. He did not feel it was necessary to consult his fellow sultans in the Council of Rulers, or convene a body of experts to pursue the matter.

Bank Negara too was silent; likewise Muslim intellectuals and economists. They are too busy arguing about ribaa.

Meanwhile the ulama are consumed with estimating how many virgins a Muslim man would get in the Hereafter for fasting beyond Ramadan. No mention of the comparable rewards for a Muslimah! In their endless sermons on death, rarely a word is mentioned on the importance of preparing oneself, and thus one’s loved ones, for this final inevitable moment. The word “will” or insurance for example, is not in the ulama’s vocabulary.

Yet today’s headlines scream of families being torn apart over squabbles on the assets of their deceased loved ones. The latest is over the multibillion-ringgit estate of the late Jamaluddin Jarjis, pitting his mother against his wife. Other cases split siblings and reignite fights among wives and ex-wives.

As a morbid thought, the intricate links and hidden assets related to 1MDB would be exposed much faster if Najib were to die tomorrow; the inevitable ensuing squabbles among his survivors would reveal much not only about his assets but also his family.

Prophetic tradition has it (approximately rendered) that we should prepare our life as if we would live forever . . . and as if we would die tomorrow.

Despite that sage advice, I have yet to hear an ulama counsel his congregation to have a will or carry adequate life insurance. Instead, they all urge us to go for Hajj or Umrah “before it is too late.” Muslims would do more good to themselves, their families, and community if they were to use their scarce resources to create a will, carry adequate life insurance, and save for their children’s education first before even contemplating Hajj.

            Think of the divisions and heartaches endured by those surviving family members over those assets trapped in probates. I do not know of the deceaseds’ fate in the Hereafter, but their survivors are surely enduring a hellish existence in this world.

            This inheritance mess reflects only one of the many failures of Islamic institutions. Muslims are consumed with reliving our supposedly glorious past rather than making serious efforts at addressing our current challenges. Islamic schools are another tragic example.

            In his bookThe Long Divergence, Duke University economist Timur Kuran concluded that it is precisely this failure of Islamic institutions to adapt that accounts for the current backwardness of the Middle East.

Islamic inheritance laws may be more just (albeit with the daughter getting only half of the son’s share) as compared to those of medieval Christians (where the eldest son gets to inherit all), but it is bad for economic development because of the subsequent fragmentation of the estate.

The West continues with its innovations, foremost being the concept of the limited liability corporation, where it would not only remain intact and not be fragmented but could continue on its normal operations upon the death of its proprietor.

Islam on the other hand considers innovation (bida’a) a deadly sin. Islam has a comparable concept of the company–waqaf(endowment)–but it has not kept up with the inevitable changes in society. A land “waqafed” to be a school must remain so even though it is now in the middle of an industrial area or that there is little need for it now that the state provides funding for schools.

            Then consider Kampung Baru, the blighted Malay settlement in the shadow of the iconic Petronas Towers. Attempts to develop this eye sore, despite being well funded, have failed. What is needed is not financial capital but intellectual resources to untangle the inheritance mess. Just to ascertain ownership of the land is a challenge. Then you would have to get all the descendants to agree to a development plan!

            When Tun Razak launched his landmark FELDA rural development scheme, he was very much aware of this potential Muslim inheritance quagmire. Thus he stipulated that FELDA land be inherited by only one son (or daughter) to avoid fragmentation. The surprise was the lack of howling protests from the ulama.

            Today, no Malay leader is courageous enough to challenge the ulama class even when they stray outside their field of expertise, as in politics (think of the many looney ideas of our ulama-politicians), and public health (consider their views on child brides). In economics, a field in which they have minimal understanding let alone expertise, they have the final say on what is halal and haram transactions despite not comprehending any of the economic concepts.
The stranglehold the ulama class has on the individual Malay mind and collectively on Malay society remains the ummah’s greatest challenge. Those billions of unclaimed inheritance assets are but only the symptoms.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Chasing The Mirage Of Malay Unity

Chasing The Mirage of Malay Unity

M. Bakri Musa

There are few certainties that could be drawn from last Saturday’s December 8, 2018 massive rally in Kuala Lumpur. One, the crowd was huge and exclusively Malay. Second, it was peaceful–a rarity with massive demonstrations. The participants even took time to clean up the mess afterwards! Compare that to the current anarchy in Paris.

This rally could benchmark future ones, both on how the protestors should behave and the authorities react. If they could be persuaded to be tolerant of future rallies, then a significant goal had been achieved.

Third, the protest was only in KL. The rest of the country was quiet. In Miri, Sarawak, they had an equally massive and peaceful parade, but to celebrate Christmas!

However, there were costs to the rally beyond the extra police work, as with the loss of business along the marchers’ route, as well as from tourists who skipped Malaysia. Those impromptu street vendors selling cheap Made-in-Bangladesh T-shirts would not compensate for that economic loss.

The rally achieved nothing, not even as a catharsis for the massive build-up of collective Malay frustrations. Had those demonstrators cleaned up the parks and beaches, or spent quality time with their loved ones, they would have achieved more.

The protest created only false hope and misplaced confidence in their leaders. These leaders have not shown any indication now or in the past of their ability to tackle our monumental challenges.

Come Monday, those protesters would return to the drudgery of their civil service jobs or village chores. Those from Kelantan might derive some comfort in that their government had declared the Sunday following, a normal working day there, a public holiday. Never mind that the Kelantan could not even meet its payroll!

Come next January, the protesters’ children would return to the same failed national schools. Nothing there too would have changed. As for religious schools, with more Malays now opting for that, if their teachers have not crippled those pupils mentally, they risked being burned in their dilapidated hostels.

As for those young Malay graduates who protested, they would still have difficulty with their job interviews, or even securing one. They would have increased their odds greatly had they spent their time and resources improving their English. Rest assured those rally leaders would never advise them of that.

If, as stated so often and so stridently by its leaders and echoed by the participants, the rally was to oppose ICERD, then that too was unneeded. The government had already decided not to ratify it.

If it was for Malay “unity” and rights, as well as to defend Islam, what have they achieved?

Islam does not need any defending, least of all from these characters. It thrived despite the Moghuls, crusaders, colonials, and Stalin. It will also survive today’s Chinese communist leaders.

PAS leader Haji Hadi, self-proclaimed ulama turned opportunistic politician, asserted that it was fardu ain(a religious obligation) upon Muslims to oppose ICERD and thus support the rally. He is too ignorant to note that Turkey, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia, among others, have ratified the treaty.

As for championing Malay rights and unity, consider the record of UMNO, the rally’s co-organizer together with PAS. UMNO was the government since 1955 until booted out in the May 2018 elections. Those institutions meant to advance Malay causes such as FELDA, 1MDB, and Tabung Haji have all been subverted to enrich corrupt UMNO leaders.

Their cry for Malay unity is but a desperate ploy to overthrow the Pakatan coalition. UMNO leaders are not even subtle in their political ambition. They could not achieve it through elections, so they opted for mob rule. That won’t succeed either as Malays would not remain dumb for long. The upcoming criminal trials of top UMNO leaders would open many more Malay eyes.

The appeal to Islam is more dangerous. Hadi is shrewd and careless in playing this dangerous tool of religion. The good news is that he has zero, if not negative influence among non-Malays, and now increasingly among Malays.

The bad news is that he still has considerable sway among rural Malays, a major voting bloc. However, with increasing urbanization and Malays becoming better informed, that would soon change.

Islam, or more correctly the variety propagated by PAS and UMNO, is turning off many Malays. Their version does not solve problems; on the contrary, it aggravates them.

More Muslims have left the faith because of the excesses of Ayatollah Khomeini than of Stalin’s. Malays should worry of the threats posed by their Haji Hadis than from their non-Muslim fellow Malaysians.

When Malays discovered that they had been conned by the Hadis, just like they had been hoodwinked by “UMNO is Malay; Malay UMNO” gimmick, the retribution then would be severe. UMNO leaders like Ahmad Zahid may yet experience the true meaning of amuk.

Images of last Saturday’s rally haunted me, especially the faces and expressions of the young. They lacked passion in their eyes and voices. Nor could they articulate their reasons for taking part. It was as if they were partaking in one of the many religious rituals without comprehending anything, just going through the motions.

That is sad. Perhaps they already realized that they were chasing a mirage.

I am for Malay unity–to improve our schools, increase opportunities for the young, and ensure that we have leaders with competence and integrity. The “unity” envisaged by UMNO and PAS leaders would have us return to them the keys to the nation’s treasury so they could once again plunder it.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Temple Riots Reflect Failure Of Leadership And Institutions

Temple Riot Reflects Failure of Leadership And Institutions

M. Bakri Musa

The November 26, 2018 Seafield temple riot in Selangor was yet another needless example and tragic consequence of the failure of Malaysian leadership and institutions.

            You would not know that from Interior Minister Muhyiddin’s smug satisfaction and misplaced confidence when he announced its “cause”–a group of unemployable Malays being paid a measly RM 150 to 300 each to storm the temple.

            Muhyiddin was confused between, what Joseph Conrad wrote in Lord Jim, the fundamental whyand the superficial how.

            Buoyed by that delusion, Muhyiddin went on to assert that the riot was not racial. Only an idiot would utter such nonsense. Of course it was; listen to the ugly epithets and seething rage before, during, and after the riot.

            The idiocy continued. Mahathir announced that henceforth all houses of worship must have local authorities’ approval. Meaning, up to now they did not? Again, failure of leadership and institutions.

            Mahathir blamed the foreign developer’s ignorance of local racial sensitivities. Quite the contrary! If the developer’s intent was benign, he would have hired Indian youths from the estates, or cheaper still, illegal Banglas. That was vintage Mahathir, blaming foreigners.

Malaysia’s incompetent leaders and failed institutions allowed problems to fester until they pitted neighbors and communities against each other.

Consider stray dogs, a major public health issue what with rabies still a problem. In America, dogs must be immunized and identification chips implanted in them. Owners must also carry plastic bags to pick up the poop when walking their pets. Those sensible rules escape Malaysian authorities. Thus when stray dogs are rounded up, that becomes racial, what with dog owners being non-Malays and dog catchers, being public employees, Malays.

Seafield was a straightforward eviction problem. Only through much conniving and even greater malice did it become racial.

            Things have not always been this way. When I was young, the streets would be littered with fake paper money and neighborhoods assaulted with raucous gongs during Chinese funerals. That is still true in Malaysia. In Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew put a stop to all that. No one else, most of all a non-Chinese, more so a colonialist, would have dared do that. That simple fiat was effective and ignited no racial animosities. Everyone saw its wisdom.

            Drive by a mosque on a Friday noon in Malaysia. You can’t; the streets would be plugged with haphazardly-parked cars. Yet no Imam had ever advised his congregation to be considerate to other road users. Nor would a Malay mayor dare order towing those vehicles, or that mosques have adequate parking.

            In the late 1950s there was a potential major strike at Malayan Railway that threatened to degenerate into an ugly racial showdown, what with the engineers and workers being mostly Indians and their managers, being seconded civil servants, Malays.

            To the Malay managers, those Indian workers were getting uppity and should be shown their place. To the Indians, those incompetent civil servants masquerading as executives needed to be taught a lesson on workers’ rights.

            It took the wisdom of Ungku Aziz to see the incendiary potential of what to most was but another industrial labor dispute. He had no formal government position but he used his considerable influence as a respected economist to frame the dispute differently, an economic issue that would impact all Malaysians. He ignored the obvious racial angle and educated both parties, as well as the public. The strike was averted.

            Today, few remember that incident, akin to a plane that had landed safely after averting a potential mid-air disaster. That Seafield tragedy grabbed headlines and opened up raw racial wounds because those in charge were incompetent, like the pilot who failed to recognize and correct an inflight issue, causing the crash.

            Malaysia today desperately needs her Ungku Aziz. We also need a Lee Kuan Yew among the Indians to tell them that they cannot build temples on land they do not own. Likewise we need a Malay Lee to tell those unemployable youths that they would have a better future, as well as for Malaysia, not by being hired hooligans but by acquiring skills.

            Looking ahead to December 8, 2018 and the planned protest against ICERD, a competent Interior Minister would direct his Police Chief (or the latter would have done it on his own) to infiltrate anti-ICERD organizations and have FRU conduct visible anti-riot exercises. Meaning, be prepared! However, don’t count on that. They are allmenunggu arahan(awaiting instructions).

A few Muftis have come out against the protest. I applaud their wisdom and courage, in particular Kelantan’s Shukri considering that his state is ruled by PAS, a vociferous anti-ICERD champion. Those Muftis went beyond just advising; they gave good reasons based on our scripture.

            They also understand the fundamental whyof racial riots, whereas Muhyiddin only the superficial how. If only our other leaders have a modicum of those Muftis’ courage and wisdom, Malaysia would be better served.