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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, March 29, 2020

Religion Should Protect, Not Endanger Us

Religion Should Protect, Not Endanger Us
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

[News item:  On March 17th 2020, the Malaysian (Federal) Religious Department announced the closure of all mosques in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Five days later it announced the creation of a special task force to handle the remains of the victims. Both edicts affect only Federal territories. There is still no effective federal/state coordination.]

         It is humbling that an ultra-tiny packet of RNA could wreck such havoc on human civilization.

         Beyond the social upheavals and economic devastations, this Covid-19 virus also inflicts consequential but underappreciated impact on the individual psyche, both the healthy as well as the infected. Despite advances in neuro- and behavioral sciences, there is still a huge void in understanding this facet of the pandemic.

         This is where we need our spiritual and religious leaders. Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, likewise there are no non-believers in a pandemic. We need and depend on a higher power to reassure us, and each other to protect and sustain us.

         In this regard, I am heartened that my Imam Ilyas had recommended early the closing of our masjid. We could do our prayers at home, he advised.

Singapore’s Mufti too did likewise. Religion is about priorities, he emphasized. The top priority now is not to endanger ourselves and others. He went further. His organization has put out an informative public service video demonstrating how the virus could spread through hugging, handshaking, and prostrating, all activities associated with congregational prayers.

A church in America provides telehealth mental health services. It encourages its followers to maintain regular communications with their loved ones via phones, Facetime, and other platforms. It offers tips on keeping the conversations hopeful so as not to burden others with your anxieties. Other suggestions include reading together passages from the Holy Book, reviewing family pictures, and sharing stories.

Many religious leaders neglect this crucial role of guidance. Malaysian ulama, all on state payroll, instead engage in sterile sermons. We should fear Allah more than Covid-19, they bellowed, and that the virus is Allah’s punishment!

Words, more so religious ones or emanating from faith leaders, have consequences. Those pronouncements resulted in Malaysia’s second and much more devastating surge in new cases.

Imagine the lives saved, costs not incurred, and families spared needless grief had that Sri Petaling Tabligh religious gathering been cancelled. Nor has that crucial lesson been learned. There was a much bigger festival later in Indonesia, a nation ill equipped to handle the inevitable spike in new infections.

Those ulama have yet to own up to their accountability for these preventable tragedies.

Religious leaders have minimal knowledge on medical and public health issues; they should not pretend otherwise. Instead they should endorse those public health measures, using their religious knowledge to buttress the arguments. Likewise, Malaysian professionals should not abrogate their responsibilities by giving those bureaucrat-ulama veto powers.

Be guided by our prophetic traditions. If you hear of an outbreak in a land, do not enter it. If you are in it, then do not leave the area, goes one. Cleanliness is part of faith, is another. Our five daily prayers are preceded by wudhu, a general cleansing of the hands, face, and feet.

Yet Malaysians, instigated by their ulama, are obsessed with public ostentatious displays of their faith, with endless emotional du’as and mass sembayang tahajut. They should be reminded of another prophetic wisdom. First tie your camel securely, only then pray that it does not escape! In the current context, first observe social distancing and wash your hands often, only then pray and make du’a.

On another front, imagine the anguish of bereaved families when they could not administer the traditional funeral rites, as with washing the bodies. Or worse, when they breach hygienic principles, thus endangering themselves and others.

Indonesia’s Imam Das’ad Latif advice is instructive. He likened the pandemic to war, with the victims syahid (martyrs), destined for Allah’s special slot in Heaven. Thus the usual rites as with ablution and prayers could be dispensed with, as during the prophet’s time with those who died in battles. Such soothing words from an alim are a balm to a grieving family.

Stress, more so chronic ones, is deleterious to our immune system, and thus our resistance to viruses and diseases. This is aggravated by associated loneliness, psychiatric symptoms, and life events. Prayers, meditation, and mindfulness alleviate stress.

Modern neuroscience’s greatest achievement is to integrate these observations at the molecular level, of how stress hormones affect neurotransmitters or alter the conformations of our genes and thus their expression. Of greater significance is that those consequences are transmitted to the next generation and beyond, as indicated by studies on victims of mass starvation in China during Mao, and in the Netherlands during the WWII Nazi blockade.

In short, what my Imam Ilyas, Singapore’s Mufti Nazirudin, and Indonesia’s Imam Das’ad Latif are doing is harness their spiritual leadership to calm and guide their followers. By contrast, those fiery, science-challenged Youtube preachers put the fear of Allah in their listeners, aggravating their stress, the very antithesis of the purpose of faith.

Former Mufti and now Religious Minister Duzlkifli Al Bakri should be less an Imam, more an executive. With Ramadan around the corner, he should consult all the muftis to come up with a national consensus. Covid-19 does not recognize political boundaries, religious persuasions, or the calendar. Prepare people for the possible closing of mosques right up to Ramadan and Eid. We cannot risk turning Houses of Allah into Houses of Pestilence.

Religion is to guide and protect, not lead us into danger. Islam is a set of universal principles to guide us to and keep us on the straight path. It is not a compilation of rigid rituals to be mindlessly performed.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

It's Not God Versus Covid-19

It’s Not God Versus Covid-19

M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

[News item:  On March 19, 2020, California’s Governor Newson announced a state-wide lockdown affecting 40 million people. The state, America’s most populous, had until recently the highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases, with my County of Santa Clara where Silicon Valley is located, leading the pack with over 302 cases, 108 hospitalized, and 10 deaths as of 4 PM March 22, 2020.]

Last Friday, March 20, 2020, the first day of spring, in the void of our mosque being closed ten days earlier, I spent the afternoon listening on-line to sermons and lectures from around the Muslim world about the current Covid-19 pandemic.

I was stunned and appalled that many ulama had framed the issue simplistically around “It’s Allah that we should fear, not Covid-19.” They refused to follow the WHO guidelines to refrain from mass gatherings. They continued with their congregational prayers, oblivious of the grave dangers they imposed upon themselves and their congregation. And from there, to the general community and far beyond.

They are being irresponsible and their actions reprehensible. The recent four-day, 15,000-strong Tabligh gathering in Petaling Jaya on Feb 27, 2020 triggered Malaysia’s second and much bigger surge of Covid-19 cases. Those attendees have now spread the pestilence throughout Southeast Asia and far beyond. The first Covid-19 death in Malaysia was an attendee at that gathering.

This fatal ignorance and willful irresponsibility span faith and countries. White Christian pastors in the conservative South openly defied the WHO protective guidelines, urging their congregations to shake hands and hug each other. At the Vatican in Covid-19-stricken Italy, Cardinal Burke called on the faithful to attend Mass!

Such determined defiance was not limited to God-fearing souls. The young in Florida and Australia flocked to the beaches, and in UK to mammoth concerts – the presumed invincibility of youth!

I found some solace in the pronouncements of the few wise, responsible ulama. Most welcomed and reassuring were from the incoming as well as outgoing Muftis of Singapore, Naizrudin Nasir and Fatris Bakaram respectively. Their sane, practical, and helpful advice was a much-needed antidote to the willful nonsense and dangerous rubbish emanating from the hordes of Muftis across the causeway.

We express our fear of Allah, Fatris reminded his flock, by following His teachings, as being grateful for the life and health that Allah has bestowed upon us. Nurture that precious divine gift so we could be of benefit to the community. In the current context, we must maintain our social distance and take all necessary preventive precautions to safeguard ourselves and our loved ones, while at the same time not endanger others. Meaning, follow those prudent WHO guidelines.

Fear of Allah also means that we should use our God-given intellect, not close our eyes and freeze our minds, he continued. Singapore was the first to close its mosques and canceled Friday and other congregational prayers.

Similar sentiments were expressed in Indonesia, alas by far too few. Among the rare precious voices was Imam Das’ad Latif. He went further and invited a physician to be on his podcast to discuss the pandemic and educate his listeners. Now there is an alim who is very much aware of the gaps in his own knowledge and goes out to find someone to fill it. Alas, such humility is glaring by its absence among Malaysian ulama. They already know it all.

In Zambabwe, Imam Munk, a preacher whose views on other social issues I do not share, expressed similar sentiment. Like the Singapore Mufti, he cancelled his congregational prayers.

Malaysia meanwhile continues on as usual, oblivious of the turmoil and mortal danger. The former Federal Mufti and now newly-minted Minister of Religious Affairs suggested that Imams shorten their sermons. The widely listened-to former Mufti of Perlis, Mohamad Asri, continued with his mass gatherings, mesmerizing his listeners and himself with his exquisite and prolonged recitations of obscure ancient Arabic texts.

He none-too-tactfully reminded the Minister of Religious Affairs that he had no authority over the states. Meaning, Asri was not bound by the ministerial edict. I would have thought that in a national emergency, with the virus not recognizing boundaries, Asri would gather his fellow Muftis to advise the Agung and his Council of Rulers on a national consensus.

If the Agung and his brother rulers could gather together in short order to dismiss former Prime Minister Mahathir, surely this Covid-19 pandemic is a much more pressing issue.

Malaysian ulama behave like out-of-touch psychiatrists who in discussing depression would endlessly quote Freud, Jung, and Maslow, while remaining blissfully ignorant of such modern insights as neurotransmitters.

In Brunei, the Sultan reminded his subjects that the virus is from Allah and that citizens must return to Him. No mention about washing hands or maintaining social distance.

With all those, I am blessed that my community here has an enlightened Imam Ilyas as our spiritual leader. It was he, after consulting his brother Imams in the area, who first suggested closing our masjid. Our secular Board quickly endorsed that, and the message was sent out right away, well before the Governor’s edict.

UK-born Imam Ilyas attended the local public school but pursued his Islamic education via the traditional route in India. He thus represents the best of Western liberal education and traditional eastern one, the former its inclusivity and open-mindedness, the latter, deference to precedents and traditions. He balances and synthesizes worldly knowledge and current insights with religious knowledge and spiritual values.

That is the kind of leadership contemporary Muslim societies desperately need.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

An Unfortunate And Frightening Incident Involving Royals

Excerpt #55:  An Unfortunate And Frightening Incident Involving Royals

         What with all the joys of the wedding and family gathering, it was hard to come to grips to the news of the Sultanah’s death. It was after all expected. After everyone had left my parents’ home following the wedding, Karen and I had plenty of time what with the quietness around to reflect on what had transpired in JB during the past few weeks.

         Seared deep into my consciousness was the recent royal tragedy. That episode in the operating room with my near mishandling of the royal lock was only one. That was dangerous and could have landed me in big trouble.

         There was another even more nasty incident that paled everything else that occurred during those hectic first few days following the royal road mishap. It shook Karen and me to our core; it exposed our vulnerability, and the sham that was modern Malaysia. At heart Malaysia was still a primitive feudal society with arbitrary rules.

         In the early morning hours of the first night of the accident, one of the Ob-Gyn consultants was called in on a difficult delivery. He stopped by his locked private office only to find a gentleman sitting in his chair. Being that late in the night, the earlier crowd of VIPs was gone. The guards were all tied up in the royal suite or else snoozing somewhere. The doctor had not heard of the earlier tragedy. There was nothing to prompt him that the stranger could be a VIP, a residue of the earlier crowd, now seeking much-needed refuge in the privacy of the doctor’s office.

         There were only two eyewitnesses to that incident. What transpired could only be verified by them. Since both have not told their story (they are still alive as of mid 2017), I am left to imagine the scenario based on my limited knowledge of both individuals.

         First, I set forth where my sympathy leaned. I was naturally inclined towards the specialist, being a colleague. More than that, fifteen years earlier when he was posted at Kuala Pilah, he did my medical examination before my leaving for Canada. I remembered his gruffness when the nurse interrupted him to sign my forms. I could understand his irritation. After all he had a long line of sick patients waiting. Signing paperwork is a major irritant to most doctors, yours truly included. However, on finding out that I was a would-be medical student, he changed his tone and became friendly, giving me much helpful advice while reminiscing about his own medical school days.

         I also remembered him in his sports car, a creamy white Triumph Spitfire convertible, driving often to the palace at Sri Menanti. As one of the few Malay doctors then, and a bachelor at that, I was certain that he was a hit among the princesses. He must not have fancied any of them (or they him!) for he later married an English lady when he did his specialist training in Britain.

         When I met him for the first time in JB as a colleague, he had a yellow convertible Porsche. Nothing unusual about the car except for its color, and of course rarity and price. In feudal Malaysia, yellow is a royal color, the exclusive preserve of the sultans. I was sure that his choice of color did not sit well with the palace circle. I was also told that he once overtook the crown prince’s car. I was sure that added to the royal displeasure, to put it in the mildest terms.

         That night, on finding an unexpected stranger in his office, the doctor asked him to leave. As for the exact words uttered, tone, or associated body language and gestures, only Allah knows, as the villagers would say. I imagine that being called in for an emergency deep in the night with your sleep rudely interrupted, niceties and pleasantries would be in short supply. It was unfortunate that the stranger turned out to be one of Malaysia’s many sultans who had earlier sought refuge in the doctor’s private office.

         The next day the doctor was banished out of state. He had 24 hours to leave. When I heard the news, my sympathy was with his patients. That was how I knew of the debacle, in the commotion in the operating rooms with his scheduled cases having to be cancelled. I did not feel sorry for him. As a specialist with a highly-sought British qualification, he would do well in private practice in Malaysia or Britain.

         As to how that Sultan reacted, that too only Allah knew. Malaysian sultans are not used to being challenged. They were above the law. That situation was not changed until the 1990s when a highly controversial constitutional amendment was adopted. That divided Malay society at its core.

         Years later I met that Sultan in a social setting in America. I found him pleasant enough. Or perhaps in the absence of any reminders of feudal Malaysia, he behaved accordingly. It was difficult for me to visualize him as a tyrant ordering the summary banishment of a dedicated doctor. Hence whether that punishment on the doctor was meted on his instigations or carried out by overzealous underlings out to impress their Sultan, again only Allah knows.

         The thought flashed in me. If such a severe and arbitrary punishment could be handed out to a long-serving medical specialist who had contributed to his nation so selflessly, imagine how easy it would be to punish someone new and young like me? I suddenly felt vulnerable. If I were to leave JB it would be on my terms and not from being pushed out. With that thought now percolating within me, I began to see JB, Malaysia, and the royal family in an entirely new and very menacing light.

Next Excerpt #56:  Aftermath Of The Sultanah’s Death

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

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Prove Us Wrong, Muhyiddin!

Prove Us Wrong, Muhyiddin!
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

[News item:  On Sunday March 1, 2020, following a week of political intrigue triggered by Mahathir’s unexpected resignation, Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in as Malaysia’s 8th Prime Minister. The Agung was satisfied, through individual interviews with MPs, that Muhyiddin had the majority support in Parliament. That assumption has yet to be ascertained.]

To assert that new Prime Minister Muhyiddin is underwhelming would be a severe understatement, his successful machination to the top slot notwithstanding. Despite his long years in politics, it is hard to gauge his legacy. One that comes to mind was the “Cowgate scandal.” He approved that project as Minister of Agriculture way back in 2006.

Muhyiddin should be inspired by world leaders who despite their initial underrated status would later shine. President Reagan was one. Like Muhyiddin, Reagan too reached the top at an old age, and was initially dismissed as just a third-rate actor.

There is no shortage of books about Reagan. Muhyiddin however, is not the reading type, and there are no Readers’ Digest edition. Instead I suggest that he ponders some of Reagan’s memorable sayings.

Like Reagan, Muhyiddin had made a good start in stating his objectives. He wants a government that is bersih, berintegriti, dan berkaliber (clean, with integrity, and of caliber). Reagan went further and surrounded himself with smart competent people who shared his worldview, as well as commitment to freedom and free enterprise.

So too should Muhyiddin. Bersih means that those now facing criminal charges should be excluded. That would eliminate a dozen aspirants. Former Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid has removed himself. That he was even considered should be the big question.

Innocent till proven guilty is fine in a criminal court, but in appointing individuals to positions of high trust and responsibility, the standard must be much more stringent, as with not even a hint of impropriety.

As for berintegriti, that would eliminate that semburit Azmin Ali character. Deadbeats lack integrity. Likewise those who squandered public funds, as with buying helicopters but not delivering them. That would disqualify the likes of Hishamuddin.

Berkaliber would eliminate that latah lady Zuraida who fudged her academic qualifications, as well as a few others.

Acknowledging his uncertain health, Muhyiddin should select young blood. Eliminate tired old characters like Mustapha Mohamad. If Muhyiddin were to pick UMNO’s has-beens, retreads, and turncoats, then he would merely be returning favors, not creating an A-team.

There is no shortage of local talent. If Muhyiddin wants a Malay-centric cabinet, at least pick smart Malays, like outgoing Minister Dzulkefli Ahmad, as well as young MPs like Nik Nazmi and Nurul Izzah. They would be more effective in furthering the Malay agenda by improving national schools over those who forever holler Ketuanan Melayu. Entice that shining star Rafizi Ramli.

If Muhyiddin fears unnecessary “politicking” among his appointees, then have them commit to notrunning in the next election. That would discourage the career politicians and party hoppers.

Most of all Muhyiddin must acknowledge the limits of government. Disabuse Malays on our misguided notion that the answer must always come from there. As Reagan once quipped, the most terrifying words in the English language are:  “I am from the government, and I am here to help!”

Malays have been getting “help” from their government for decades. Look at the good that does. Special privileges did not improve Malay competitiveness, instead they bred corrupt ersatz entrepreneurs like that billion-ringgit UMNO stalwart “Tengku” Adnan. Name a product or service associated with him.

The government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives, Reagan asserted. A timely reminder should Muhyiddin ponder having the likes of PAS Hadi.

The needless drama of the past two weeks reminded me of yet another Reagan quote. “Politics,” he said, “was the second oldest profession, but I have learned that it bears a striking resemblance to the first.” Look at those politicians whoring themselves, utterly without shame or morals.

It is well over a week and Muhyiddin has yet to select his ministers. If the delay is due to his seeking the most qualified, then by all means take the time. However, if it is due to ongoing backroom horse trading, then beware. Plunderers are rarely satisfied with their loot. There is no honor among thieves. Expect more betrayals.

Muhyiddin may not turn out to be a Malaysian Reagan. Nonetheless if he were to have bersih, berintegriti, berkaliber Administration, then Malaysians, more so Malays, would be the beneficiary. And America might just resume repatriating more of the recovered 1MDB loot.

Monday, March 02, 2020

Pathetic Malay Leadership - Recycling Turncoats

Pathetic Malay Leadership – Recycling Turncoats

M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

[News item:  On February 29, amidst a week of unneeded political crisis triggered by him, Mahathir resigned and was promptly appointed Interim Prime Minister by the Agung. After the MPs (each armed with their “Statutory Declaration”) as well as the Attorney-General and Chief Justice paraded themselves through Istana Negara, the King announced Muhyiddin Yassin as Prime Minister.]

The Agung’s process in appointing Muhyiddin as Prime Minister merits scrutiny. Granted, Malaysia has never faced a similar challenge before, which makes the decision-making process critical. If unchallenged it could be precedential. Dispensing with the constitutional propriety of the Agung consulting the Attorney-General (a political appointee) and the Chief Justice (who may have to adjudicate the matter later), I would have been more reassured had the Agung sought independent legal counsel. Malaysia has no shortage of such luminaries. Even if they were to charge their customary fees, that would still have been worth it. One good solid advice is worth thousands of free ones, especially when those freebies have a stake in the Agung’s decision.

            The Agung did consult his brother rulers. One of them skipped, perhaps busy cavorting with yet another Russian beauty. Significantly, the Agung bypassed the four governors. Ever wonder at the increasing chatter for secession in East Malaysia?

            I don’t blame the Agung for this major oversight. He is new at his job. Instead I put the blunder straight upon his advisors, specifically the Keeper of the Royal Seal and the government’s Chief Secretary. They are but glorified overpaid clerks. This pair and the Council of Rulers also demonstrate the pathetic state of Malay leadership.

Earlier we saw Malay political leaders in action. They triggered this mess. As for Malay intellectuals on campus and pundits in the media, they remain uncharacteristically silent. Their wet finger has yet to tell them which direction the wind blows.

            Malay religious leaders are no better. The usually vociferous former Mufti of Perlis, Dr. Asri, is curiously mute; likewise the establishment Federal Mufti. None of his usual sterile pontifications.

It used to be that Malays could comfort ourselves that while non-Malays control the economy, we were adroit in matters political. The hope was that we would leverage that to improve the lot of our community. Instead, Malay leaders exploit that to enrich themselves.

While there are more and more Malays, including former UMNO stalwarts who had long been apologists for the party and the establishment generally, coming out against current Malay leaders, their efforts are a tad too little and too late. Where were they when Anwar Ibrahim and his reformasi movement needed support?

How long can Malays continue blaming DAP specifically and the pendatangs generally? It must hurt Malays deeply to acknowledge that two of the most effective ministers in the outgoing cabinet – Transport Minister Anthony Loke and Energy, Science, and Technology Minister Yeo Bee Yin – are from DAP.

You cannot credit their education, for while Yeo is Cambridge-educated, Loke had his from Universiti Kebangsaan.

Malays too have capable ones like Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad (Imperial College PhD) but they are vastly overshadowed by the likes of that latah lady, Housing Minister Zuraida Kamarudin, who has an uncontrolled urge to blabber on reporters’ microphones, and that semburit Minister of Economic Affairs. Don’t blame them. Blame the character who appointed them – Mahathir.

After the Agung had bypassed him, all Mahathir could brag was, “My number is bigger than yours!” referring to the MPs’ Statutory Declarations, reminiscent of my adolescent days, except then we were not referring to numbers, rather our anatomical member! He lamented that the Agung did not want to see him anymore. The Agung is not the only one.

As for Muhyiddin, he may have been expelled from UMNO but he is core UMNO. He has UMNO’s integrity (meaning, none), Abdullah Badawi’s competence (a tad less sleepy), and Najib’s morality (Muhyiddin’s salacious extracurricular activities will soon be exposed).

Unless his Singapore surgeons goofed their diagnosis, Muhyiddin would have minimal impact on Malaysia. More ominous would be his choice of a Deputy, and thus potential successor, as well as his cabinet.

In his first address to the nation, he promised to appoint ministers from among those who are “bersih, berintegriti, berkaliber (clean, have integrity, and of caliber). I am amused that he felt compelled to assert, Nixon-style, “Saya bukan pengkhianat!” (I am not a traitor!)

Nonetheless if he were to appoint those facing criminal charges (like Ahmad Zahid) or who have skipped their bills (Azmin Ali), then Muhyiddin’s lofty promise would ring hollow. Innocent till proven guilty is fine in a criminal court, but when appointing candidates to high office, the bar must necessarily be much higher, as with not even a hint of impropriety. Deadbeats are without integrity.

Likewise if Muhyiddin were to appoint the turncoats. If they could betray Anwar and Mahathir, they could just as easily betray the betrayer, Muhyiddin.

If Muhyiddin were to appoint any of these characters to his Administration, then Parliament should act right away. At its scheduled meeting of March 9, MPs should pass a vote of no-confidence on him. At which point the Agung should appoint Anwar Ibrahim. The Agung and his advisors should review the people’s mandate expressed at the last election. It still holds. At this perilous time Malaysia does not need an expensive, divisive, and rancorous election.