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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, October 27, 2019

Excerpt #40: Still In The Market For A New Home

Excerpt # 40: Still In The Market For A Dream House

            Even though we had rented a house, we still went out house hunting. Part of that was our commitment to JB and part, my curiosity about the local real estate market. At that time it was heating up fast, with Singaporeans snapping up local properties as they could not afford homes on the island. My rationale for wanting to buy was that even if we were to be transferred back to KL, we could still sell the house and reap a tidy profit, just like we did in Edmonton.

            As luck would have it, we found a beautiful house up on top of the hill overlooking the Strait of Johor onto Singapore. The backyard abutted the palace grounds of Bukit Serene. Being on top of the hill we would not have to worry about the people above us dumping their smelly garbage into the open drain, as with our house in Bungsar. The price too was well within our range. The house was empty and the agent managed to pry open one of the doors and we had a free uninhibited tour inside. There were cobwebs all over, but we overlooked that. The house had been empty for a while; we thought it had not even been occupied before.

            We could imagine ourselves having a leisurely afternoon tea and watching those planes taking off and landing at the distant Paya Lebar Airport in Singapore. That was a reassuring sight. If something bad were to happen in Malaysia, we could escape to Singapore, and from there to anywhere in the world.

            We salivated at our find. As was (still is) our practice, we arranged for a second visit, this time at a more leisurely pace, our eyes wide open, and critical faculties well honed. This second visit only enhanced the house’s appeal. We fell in love with it even more. Then we went around to the back of house to the private entrance to the maid’s quarters. It faced the spacious grounds of the palace. That very private maid’s room would be my “man cave!”

            I opened the bathroom door. There, coiled in the toilet hole in the cement floor, was a cobra, coiled and ready to strike! I jumped back! Karen saw my reaction and came over to find out what had frightened me. She saw the snake and took off to our car, grabbing the kids. Our agent was not perturbed. He had no difficulty catching the serpent and chopping its head off. The critter was about four feet long. The length did not matter. It petrified us regardless. He told us that it was probably from the palace. The sultan was an avid snake collector. Probably one of his collections had escaped.

            That was it. We gave up. I remember as a youth my father found a snake in the house. He had it killed in an instance. He was not worried about the snake itself rather by what it portended. Snakes were considered a terrible curse. So that Thursday evening we had a kenduri in the village to remove the curse. It must have worked for I did not remember any untoward consequences.

            We had to calm ourselves on the verandah where we could see even a worm that would crawl to us on the cement. I kept thinking that things were going swell until we opened that bathroom in the maid’s quarters. It was not a good omen. However, after a few minutes sitting on the verandah sipping Green Spot lemonade that the agent had brought, and with the view of the vast expanse over the Strait of Johore with modern bustling Singapore in the distance, I fell in love again with the house, the cobra notwithstanding. Persuading Karen however, took some time.

            From the modernish décor we were expecting the owner to be a rich Chinese professional. He was now perhaps fed up with Malaysia and ready to emigrate to Australia. Imagine our surprise when our agent took us to a dirty Chinese settlement to meet an elderly man living in a shack. He could hardly speak a word of Malay or English. I was sure that he was one of those hawkers described in McGee’s book who had through sheer frugality and hard work saved a lot and built for himself a beautiful house on the hill. Then when he discovered that his neighbors were doctors and lawyers, felt uncomfortable living there. Indeed, at the bottom of the hill resided the state medical director, my local superior. Across the street was a lawyer turned entrepreneur. He had harnessed the needs of the thousands of Malaysians studying in Britain to come home for vacations every so often into a lucrative airline charter business.

            The whole Chinese neighborhood came out to see what this white woman with an officious looking Malay were doing slumming in the area. It took quite a bit of coaxing by our agent to get the man out of his shack just to talk to us.

            It did not take long for me to decipher from the man’s body language and the abbreviated responses he gave our agent that the deal was not going through. The man looked like a cowed Chihuahua with a prized T-bone steak in his mouth, trying to hide it so no one could see and thus grab his prized possession. Yes, he had changed his mind about selling, the agent told us, and we left. I was devastated; Karen less so. She was in fact relieved. That earlier encounter with the cobra was indeed a premonition that we were not welcomed in that house on top of the hill.

            I related our experience to my brother Sharif and his wife Zainab. Our accepting the full asking price right off the bat was a big mistake, they advised us. A rookie’s eagerness, also a mistake. The owner took that as a sign that it was underpriced, which it probably was. I should have offered a much lower figure and also not have brought Karen along with me. Seeing a white lady only confirmed the owner’s suspicion about the house being modern and desirable to a Mom Salleh (white woman), and therefore underpriced.

            It would have been prudent had I emphasized that the property being adjacent to the palace grounds, to remind the owner that it was vulnerable. The sultan could grab it at any time without any compensation. Malay sultans are fond of doing those kinds of things.

            I should have also brought up the encounter with the cobra and the bad luck that it symbolized, Sharif suggested. However, that could have backfired. To the Chinese, snakes are considered auspicious, a mini dragon guarding the place.

            That was our only house hunting saga in JB. While our experience was radically different from what we had endured in KL, the results were the same. We were unsuccessful. We were destined to reside at No: 2, Jalan Baiduri, off Jalan Kolam Ayer.

Next:  Excerpt # 41:  An Easy Transition
Excerpted from the author’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned.  A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Excerpt #40: Finding A Home, Again!

Excerpt # 39:  Finding A Home, Again!

            To our pleasant surprise, unlike in KL, we had no difficulty finding a house to rent. We found a clean, comfortable double-story duplex on the main bus route to the hospital. At the other end of the line was the palace. Although unfurnished, the duplex was not stripped bare as with the houses we saw in KL. It was modern, but like most Malaysian houses, the landscaping was nonexistent. While the compound was fenced and the lawn well kept, outside by the road it was a different world, messy with strewn garbage and overgrown weeds. My mortal fear was that a cobra would crawl into the house from there.

            A Chinese lawyer owned the duplex, not as his personal residence but as a rental. When he met us and on discovering that I was a surgeon and Karen was from Canada, the house was ours at whatever rent we wanted. That house was peanuts to him as far as a revenue generator, his focus was a major commercial center he was developing and having trouble with the local bureaucrats. All he wanted was for someone to take care of the house and not destroy it. He sounded honest enough; either that or he was a great salesman!

            He took his morning off to drive us around the city in the comfort of his air-conditioned Jaguar. JB was indeed a beautiful city when seen from the comfort of a luxury car. That was a much-needed antidote to my earlier impression. The sight that struck me then was the pungent Sengget River. I remember remarking to Karen that I could walk on that water!

            My landlord was taken aback that we were looking for a rental. He thought that being a surgeon and a Malay at that, I would get one of those spacious bungalows on the hillside. I could not answer him. I was just glad that we found that duplex for RM350 as compared to the RM500 in KL. Even factoring that it was not furnished, it was still a good deal. Though “unfurnished,” it was not the Malaysian variety, meaning, the lights and sockets had not been ripped off. What sold the unit for Karen was its Western-style kitchen and bathrooms.

            Later at his rather simple office I was surprised from the diplomas on the walls that he had graduated from Penang’s Chung Ling High School but had his law degree from Australia. I thought those Chinese schools did not teach any English. They did, he said, but not enough. He had a tough time in Australia, and oh, how he envied his fellow Malaysians like me who had gone to English schools!

            My lawyer landlord was right. The government was to provide us with a house, furnished, but there was none available. Nothing new to me there.

            The other half of the duplex was occupied by a newly-married couple. She still had her henna stains on her palms and feet. The husband was with Bank Pertanian, and Gita was a stay-at-home wife. Our kids liked her right away. It helped that the couple spoke English.

            Now settled, more or less though we did not have any furniture yet, we spent the rest of my days before reporting to work exploring the nearby towns and villages. I purposely decided not to go even close to the hospital until I reported for duty. I knew that once I was in contact with the hospital there was no way I could ignore it.

            We visited the western side of the southern-most tip of the peninsula facing the Strait of Malacca to the delightful fishing village of Kukup. There was no beach, only muddy waters and marshes. Across that narrow stretch of water, streams of cargo ships would pass by. Barely ten miles away but a totally different universe was Indonesia. The cuisines at the many seafood restaurants at Kukup were exquisite. Even the less-than-sanitary ambience and the thought of the appalling poverty across the Strait of Malacca did not dampen our appetite, testimony to the skills of the chefs. All very cheap too!

            On the other (eastern) side of the tip of the peninsula and slightly to the north facing the blue, clean South China Sea was the new resort town of Desaru. We could not believe our eyes as we drove up to the town. We were driving along the country road under the deep jungle green canopy on each side when suddenly through the spaces in between the trees we could get teasing glimpses of  the dark blue of the ocean ahead. Then, as if somebody had lifted a thick green curtain, we faced an endless stretch of white sandy beach with the azure sea that blended with the equally deep-blue sky in the far horizon.

            We parked our car at the first safe spot that we found, right on the beach, and rushed out. It was heaven! The sand was soft and powdery, gently letting our feet sink to just below the ankle. The water was bath-tub warm, and the waves gentle. The beach was a universe beyond Waikiki; the sand was gorgeous with no pebbles to irritate your feet. There were also no other souls around!

            We must have walked far for I had to go back and get the car and then park it further ahead and we were still by the beach! We exhausted ourselves and retreated to the car for shade as well as to replenish ourselves, and then drove further on. Still the long expanse of white sand and deserted beach.

            Soon we came upon some construction and the sign, “Desaru.” They were building a golf course. There was no town as such, only some buildings which we were told would be the resort as well as golf center. There was a makeshift restaurant serving only bottled drinks. We were told that during weekends the place would be packed but that day there were only the workers. We were also told that when completed the resort would exceed Waikiki!

            By this time we were ready to get into our swimming suits and into the water. An internal antenna, or was it God, told me that the sea was not safe for I could see the telltale signs of riptide. I could also feel a slight undertow as I entered the water. Later as we were frolicking in the water close to the beach, an elderly villager came up to warn us that there had been a couple of drownings where we swam. We thanked him for the advice and from then on stayed only on the beach.

            That beach outing at Desaru was a heavenly detour. Then back to JB. We were now ready for our new abode and me, my new job.

Next  Excerpt # 40: Still in the Market For our Dream House

Excerpted from the author’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned.  A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Excerpt # 38: JB, That's Where We Will Be!

Excerpt # 38: JB, That’s Where We Will Be!
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

As luck would have it, that January before my transfer to JB, my sister Jaharah and her husband Nik left for Syracuse, New York, he to pursue graduate work. We did not envy them as we had lived in Montreal for a year and the weather there and in Syracuse was similar. The practical effect of their leaving was that we got the use of their car. It was a later model, larger, and most of all, air-conditioned. It also had all the necessary gadgets needed to entertain us–radio and tape cassette.

            As our earlier trip to JB did not accomplish much (not that we tried hard), this time my brother-in-law Ariffin joined us for our first few days to help us settle in. Being from Kluang, JB was his old stomping ground. We took a leisurely drive spending the night at Malacca, halfway down to JB, staying at the Shah Beach Motel. The location of the hotel was fantastic; you stepped out right onto the beach. That was the only thing fantastic about the place even though it was considered an upscale lodging, at least by local standards.

Malacca did not impress us except for the historical part of the town. We toured the ancient and distinctive blood-red brick forts built by the Dutch and Portuguese when they colonized the port before the British took over. Compared to Port Dickson, both the water and beach were dirty. We stayed just for the night.

            I explained to Karen that the red color was from the stain of the betel nut juice the natives used to spit on the building, an expression of their contempt for the colonizers. She was not impressed with my story.

            We arrived in JB early the next day and stayed at the Rest House. Like the one in Port Dickson, this one too was made of wood and on wide, short, brick stilts, located on a hillside with lush surrounding gardens. Unlike the Orchid Hotel downtown, it was quiet and peaceful. The rooms were spacious and airy. The Rest House was a clean pastoral patch, a welcomed contrast to the dirty disheveled city.

            We spent the first few days just resting. The public library was within walking distance, and we checked it out. We were pleasantly surprised to find that it was well equipped, with many wonderful children books as well as a substantive collection on Malaysian affairs, a stark contrast to the libraries in KL or Seremban.

The State Library in Seremban was in the imposing State Secretariat building up on the top of the hill. What few books they had were kept locked in their expensive glass-covered bookcases. When I asked to see some of the Malay books, the body language response I received from the lady (I would not call her a librarian) was, “Who would want to read them!” The national library in KL was not much better.

            Early in our married life Karen and I had discussed what we would look for in a town or city to live in. What made our life in Edmonton so enjoyable despite its long cold winters was the city’s wonderful libraries, beautiful parks, and other public amenities. Karen had worked with the city library before we had our family. We decided that those would be the deciding features in choosing where we would settle down. JB had both a good library and attractive parks!

            Two books in the Jubilee Library grabbed my attention, and I borrowed both right away. Having been deprived of general reading materials for over a year, what with newsmagazines and periodicals being exorbitantly expensive, I devoured both books in no time, a desert traveler who had stumbled upon an undiscovered watering hole in a lush oasis.

            One was Milton Esman’s Administration and Development in Malaysia. Institution Building and Reform in a Plural Society.[1] The other was by a Canadian economist-geographer who had studied the cash flow and other economic activities of JB street hawkers, specifically those along the waterfront road by the hospital.[2] It so happened that the evening before we had dinner at one of those satay stalls. The place was packed despite the lack of any formal visible organization. I was struck by the economic vibrancy of the place despite the absence of authority figures like the police or health inspectors. Yet everything went smoothly. The crowd was pleasant and orderly; the stalls neatly lined up against each other. Each stall had their own generator and fluorescent lights. Even the traffic was smooth. The soft sea breeze helped cool the evening.

            During my youth, carbide lamps were used. That was not only hot but also attracted moths that would get burnt to a crisp. You had to be careful that they did not end up in your soup! It would be difficult to differentiate them from fried onions, except through taste, which would be too late!

            That book by the Canadian economist captured well not only the social atmosphere of the place but also its underlying hidden economic dynamism. The “hidden economy” may be hidden to officialdom but it was nonetheless organic and smooth running, as if directed by an invisible hand, to quote Adam Smith, and serving a very useful function.

Esman’s book and his observations struck close to home for me, having by now had many encounters with those senior Malaysian civil servants he was observing. One particular account he recounted validated my earlier low opinion of them. At one meeting of the nation’s top civil servants, the ministries’ KSUs (Ketua Setia Usaha–Secretaries-General), Esman was astounded that half of the time was devoted to discussing trivial matters as whose turn it was to occupy a palatial government mansion that was to be vacated by a retiring official! Ever wonder why Malaysian schools are awful or the roads always flooded?

Those top civil servants were more glorified “cc’s” (chief clerks); they occupied themselves with administrative trivia and were consumed with kami menurut perentah (We await directions–the motto of the civil service). Brilliant executives, enlightened policymakers, or strategic thinkers they were not. No wonder I was impressed with the few outstanding individuals like the Medical Director-General Dr. Majid Ismail whom I was fortunate to meet a few weeks after my arrival home in Malaysia.

Excerpt # 39:  Finding A Home, Again!
From the author’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018.

[1] Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1972
[2] McGee,TG: Hawkers in Southeast Asian Cities. Planning For the Bazaar Economy, International Development Research Center, Ottawa, 1977.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Excerpt # 37: The Saga Of Our Transfer

Excerpt # 37:  The Saga Of Our Transfer
M.Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

            The Badris had been our confidants. His Karen had been a great emotional support for both my Karen and me. Whenever we bitched about the sluggishness of the bureaucracy and everything else, Badri’s Karen would sooth us by advising, “They do it differently here!” Not wrong, just different! We did not know how many times that wise counsel helped keep our sanity. No wonder she adjusted so well to Malaysia!

            I apprised the Badris of our plan to leave KL. Earlier he was very disappointed when I told him of my “interview” with the UKM’s dean and my giving up a potential academic career. I had not completely given up and reminded him of my just-submitted application to the University of Malaya. Through the medical grapevine I discovered that it was not a new position, rather the current occupant was quitting to enter private practice. That kept my aspirations alive. If it were for a new position, they could always use the excuse of lack of funding to rescind the offer. There was still a chance that I would return to KL (or PJ at least), as an academic and build that dream house of ours.

            Like us, the Badris met during their undergraduate days in Canada. Badri’s Karen later obtained her PhD in Chemistry from the University of Malaya. Both were with the Department of Chemistry, Universiti Putra Malaysia. They lived on its green bucolic campus at Serdang, a suburb of KL. Every time I visited them I could feel my blood pressure drop and a blissful calm would engulf me, a desert Bedouin finding a lush oasis after a long journey in the dry desert. In contrast to Bungsar, it was also about ten degrees cooler at Serdang. As could be expected, we were their frequent guests. The UPM campus was my favorite sanctuary, a soothing balm for my frequent frayed nerves.

            Unlike many young Malay academics then (and now), Badri was not seduced by titles–academic, administrative, or otherwise. He was Dean of Science for a while because they could not find anyone else! That is not a complimentary thing to say, until you know Malaysia and Badri. They do it differently there! He was not in the least interested in lobbying to advance himself. Campus politics was not his cup of tea. “They can read my papers!” he shrugged.

            Badri, who was from Kelantan, was kapak siam(Siamese axe), the ubiquitous but small well-concealed personal weapon of choice for Kelantan Malays. Not readily visible but inflicts a deep lethal cut. They labelled him “hard headed.” After knowing Malaysia, that’s a compliment. So too to Badri.

            With our Christmas holidays truncated, Karen and I decided to squeeze a weekend visit to JB to get the lay of the land. We left the kids with their grandparents in Seremban and we took the MARA Express bus, after being told that it was the most convenient with respect to schedule as well as costs.

            What a ride! We had the front seat opposite the driver’s side; so we saw everything right up front and direct. Very unnerving! The driver, a young Malay with a red scarf around his neck, shirt untucked, and donning shiny oval sunglasses, was out to prove that he had just missed the final cut in the Formula One trials. He driving “skills” consisted of alternating jamming on the brakes and the accelerator while yanking the steering wheel from one side to the other.

I lost how many times Karen had to close her eyes as he was overtaking yet another vehicle on the curvy, congested two-lane road with another car headed straight towards us. When we reached JB my neck was sore and my arms and shoulders stiff from bracing myself. My neck muscles and hair still stiffen up just recalling that trip.

            We stayed at the Orchid Hotel, the only respectable lodging in town. As we had no car we took the local bus to see the town. The hospital with its distinctive bright-red brick exterior, blighted with black mold here and there, was located right on Jalan Abu Bakar, the main thoroughfare. Across the road was the Strait of Johor, with Singapore clearly visible across the narrow strip of water.

            Mixed couples were not a novelty in Malaysia but seeing one taking the local non-air-conditioned bus was. We had stares wondering where we would alight and thus where we lived. Instead we went right to the end of the line, walked around and then came back to our hotel. That was our “seeing the lay of the land.” We liked what we saw, even just from the bus, and looked forward to our transfer.

            That was scheduled for the new year but because one of the transferees in the recently-concluded promotion and transfer exercise balked, the whole carefully crafted scheme crumbled in the chain reaction. My transfer was thus delayed till after the Chinese New Year, meaning middle-to-late February. Malaysia may be a Muslim country and the Chinese a minority, but Chinese New Year holidays cripple the country, including and especially the government.

            To shorten the long saga of my transfer exercise, the moving trucks did not arrive till May. A few days earlier we had a check-out “walk through” with a family representative of the owner of the house. When we moved in we had asked permission to create an opening the bedroom wall for an air-conditioner unit. Now we asked them whether we should patch that hole as that would save them a few hundred dollars should they wish to have another unit installed. For security reasons, they told us to reconstitute the wall as before. That cost us another few hundred dollars more. When the workmen were done, we could not tell that there had been a big opening in the wall only a few days earlier. We took the unit with us to JB.

            There were not one but two trucks that arrived that morning of our move. Earlier Karen had carefully tagged the items and furniture that would stay. As we rented the house furnished, there was not much to take with us. The workers were surprised. They thought they were being sent to a surgeon’s house and that there would surely be plenty of household goods to pack. On discovering that was not so, half the crew left immediately with the other truck, empty, back to the depot. The remaining half, frustrated at having to stay and work while their colleagues had the day off, acted accordingly. They took their own sweet time. Or maybe we were misjudging them in that they were performing at their usual pace.

            Although I was looking forward to my new assignment, nonetheless I felt sad on having to leave GHKL. I felt as if I was abandoning those young trainees, especially those medical students from UKM. They were keen learners and very much aware of the severe limitations that the system had imposed upon them–their language inadequacy. What with their instructors being aloof and remote, I felt that I represented a different role model for them, one they could approach without fear.

            I was also saddened that I had to abandon my fledgling research projects. One in particular was dear to me, the immunology of parasitic infections specifically amebiasis, which we saw many cases, and malignancies, focusing on nasopharyngeal cancer, also common in Malaysia. I had a few months earlier initiated that project with a fresh PhD from Australia. We had presented our preliminary findings at the International Academy of Proctology meeting held in Kuala Lumpur that August. Nasopharyngeal cancer was also of special interest to Professor Kutty.

            With UKM going ahead with its planned new building, I was also looking forward to its new animal lab and continuing the research that I had done in Edmonton.

            Most of all I was sad that I could not contribute to the one glaring problem facing my native land, the shortage of surgeons, in particular Malay surgeons. What I did not miss about leaving KL was the congestion, pollution, and the stifling presence of those bureaucrats, medical and civilian, at the Ministry of Health.

Next:  Excerpt # 38: JB, That’s Where We Will Be!

From the author’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Kampung Don Quixotes And Their Enemies (Re-post)

As Malaysians (or to be truthful, only Malays as non-Malays would be busy with being productive) await breathlessly for this Sunday’s (October 6, 2019) Kongress Maruah Melayu(Malay Dignity Congress), my thoughts flashed back to an earlier (over a decade ago) Kongress Permuafakatan Melayu(Malay Solidarity Congress). Like that earlier one, this Sunday’s Kongressis also organized by academics. I reprint below my commentary on that earlier gathering and await Monday morning to see how relevant my earlier observation was to the current one.
KampungDon Quixotes And Their Enemies
May 18, 2008

Leaders of Kongress Permuafakatan Melayu(Malay Solidarity Congress)*are obsessed with fighting imagined enemies of so-called Ketuanan Melayu. These kampung Don Quixotes are consumed with slaying foes that exist only in their florid imaginations. Like the deluded knight-errant de La Mancha, these leaders are oblivious to the fact that the world mocks them with undisguised contempt for their silly delusions.
It saddens me that this Congress was led by Ismail Hussein and Osman Bakar, intellectual giants for whom I have the greatest respect. Ismail was the long-time head of the Malay Studies Department at theUniversity of Malaya, while Osman was a former professor atGeorgetownUniversity.
It seems that every few years the Malay elite, as well as those who think that they belong there, go into spasms of agony and feel compelled to gather and pontificate on what ills our people.
The pattern is also predictable: a flood of shrill press releases, followed by an elaborate congress officiated by some “has-been” leaders, and the ensuing slew of high-minded resolutions calling on the government to “do something!” The hue and cry would persist for a few weeks, at most.
A few months later and all would be forgotten.Give a few more years and those same issues would again be resurrected, and the whole pattern repeated.
A few years ago there was the Badan Tindakan Melayu(Malay Action Front) led by Ghaffar Baba, after he lost his chance to be the country’s number one. A few years prior to that, there was the Forum of Malay Professionals.
Not-So-Hidden Hands
This latest congress was sponsored by GAPENA, the Malay acronym for the National Writers Association. Despite its pretentious “national” label, GAPENA is essentially a Malay entity.
Writing is not exactly a well-paying profession, more so for Malay writers. So for GAPENA to sponsor this event at an upscale facility and pay for the accommodations of the attendees must mean that it had a sugar daddy. Even the Bar Council, the body for a more lucrative profession, depended on the government to pay for its recent gala dinner for Prime Minister Abdullah and the fired judges.
Reading the papers presented and resolutions adopted at this GAPENA’s event, I am persuaded by the wisdom, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” The papers and resolutions were so shamelessly pro-UMNO that they could have been ghost written by its operatives.
The congress attracted over 200 Malay NGOs.Many were sham organizations created overnight so their “president” and “secretary” could enjoy a three-day paid syok sendiri(self-indulgence) stay in Johore Baru.
The more than two dozen resolutions adopted dealt with Islam, politics, education, as well as Malay language and culture, among others. These folks obviously confused the problems of Malays with those of UMNO. Or perhaps this was a clumsy attempt by UMNO to use politically naïve and all-too-willing underpaid academics and writers to advance its cause.
The participants obviously did not ponder this simple thought. If after over five decades of UMNO rule the “Malay problem” is still getting worse (as this congress tried to impress upon us), would it not make sense now to let others take over?
This Congress also decided to set up a permanent secretariat,Majlis Muafakat Melayu Malaysia(4M) – Malay Solidarity Council of Malaysia. They initially decided to form “3M” without the “Malaysia,” but seeing that the famous trademark was already taken, they belatedly added the fourth “M.”In so doing they also revealed their insularity, for the problems afflicting us are also shared by others in the greater Nusantara (Malay world).
Their amateurism again showed when they failed to flesh out important basic details like how the secretariat would be funded.
My Resolutions SanAny Congress
Malays do not have to create phantom enemies; our problems are real and right in front of and within us. Peruse the daily headlines:  abandoned babies and rampaging Mat Rempits. Ponder the statistics on child and spousal abuses, school dropout rates, and other socioeconomic indices. We are overrepresented in all those spheres.
Besides, no sane Malaysian is suggesting doing away with Malay sultans, language, or culture. Likewise with abolishing Malay special privileges – the mortal and eternal fear of these folks. That would require a constitutional amendment. The votes are just not there, now or in the future.
These congresses serve only to divert our attention; they offer no thoughtful solutions. As such I offer my own resolutions,sanan expensive, elaborate congress for those participants as well as ordinary Malays to act on their own. I have found these suggestions useful for me and my family.
Resolution # 1 Education: On the evening of every school day, I would turn off the television set, help my children with their schoolwork, and read to them at bedtime. I would attend parent-teachers’ conferences and other school events. On special occasions like Hari Raya, I would give gifts of books.
The cost of my proposition ranges from zero (bedtime reading) to modest (books), but the benefits are immense and everlasting.
Resolution #2 Islam:  I would teach my children the tenets of Islam, that is, “Command good, and forbid evil!” Meaning, I would have them strive to live, and not merely recite, the words of the Koran.
As for Hajj, one of the pillars of our faith, I would first make sure that my children’s education was taken care of, my debts paid, and my old age provided for so I would not be a burden to others, including my children after my Hajj. For that reason I would not sell my land or assets to fund my pilgrimage.
Instead of undertaking an umrah or another pilgrimage, I would donate the funds to an orphanage. I do not know whether Allah would consider that to be more meritorious, but I am certain that those orphans would benefit and appreciate my gift more.
Resolution #3 Halal and Haram Issues: I will teach my children to discern halalfrom haram.For example, if they get paid a dollar from their employer, they should give three dollars worth of work in return; one dollar to cover the salary, another for the overhead, and the third for the employer’s profit. Anything less and you would be earning gaji buta(lit. blind salary), and that would be haram. Corruption is also haram, and so too breaches of faith and cheating your customers.
Resolution #4The Economy: To be economically successful we must emulate those who already are. Meaning, we have to save and invest, individually and as a society. When we spend, we have to be mindful of its opportunity cost and earning equivalent. Would it be better to spend RM100,000 on your daughter’s ostentatious wedding or on a payment towards the couple’s first house? At a societal level, is it better to spend the billions of Wang Ehsan to build the crystal mosque or fund our universities? That’s what the economists refer to as opportunity costs, or foregone opportunities.
As you smoke that expensive Cuban cigar in a posh restaurant, ponder how many days a villager would have to work to pay for it.As most high-flying Malays today are only a generation or two removed from the grinding poverty of the kampung, that thought ought to restrain their flamboyance. This earning equivalent is also what bankers consider before giving out loans, as for example, mortgage payments not exceeding a third of your income. That is being prudent. Cultivate those habits and it would also save you from the lethal clutches of the Ah Longs.
My resolutions do not require a permanent secretariat or a massive bureaucracy; each of us can implement any or all. Doing so would go a long way in ameliorating the “Malay problem,” and certainly more useful than those hifalutin ideas thrown about at this and previous or future congresses.

*Took place in Johor Baru on May 2, 2008 officiated by the state’s Crown prince. Two months earlier on March 8 UMNO’s BARISAN coalition suffered a humiliating setback when it failed to secure a two-third majority in GE12.