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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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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 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.


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