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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, January 31, 2021


Muslims In The Era Of Globalization

M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.blogspot.com)

Presented At The Muslim Students Association, Stanford University, February 14, 2003


Last of Four Parts:   Readers’ Responses


I receive the longest and most passionate letters from readers – especially those who disagree with me – when I write on Islam. Often these letters would trigger debates among other readers. I am encouraged that more agree than disagree with me. Part of that is self-selection. Often, they write to express their appreciation that someone else shares their views. Because of the oppressive atmosphere on matters Islamic in Malaysia, Malays are loath to offer their opinions even when they think that the official views are ridiculous and offend their sensibilities, because of the fear of being labelled “un-Islamic” or worse, a murtad.

Murtad is a far more offensive term and carries a much greater stigma (and danger) than its simple translation of someone who has denounced his faith. If those fanatical Muslims have their way, murtads would deserve the death penalty. They are worse than kafirs – the real infidels!

It is gratifying to get responses from non-Muslims. They are relieved or at least pleasantly surprised to read an alternative view of Islam, one that is tolerant and less dogmatic from what they have been hearing from the radical bearded mullahs or from JAKIM, the state version. Some expressed concerns on the effect on race relations in Malaysia if a significant segment of the population (meaning, Malays) were to be held back economically and in other ways because of their obsession with matters religious and the Hereafter, together with the inferior education they receive from these religious institutions.

The main theme of those Muslim readers who disagree with me is that if only I had studied with such and such a scholar or had “really” studied Islam “properly” like they had, then I would not have been misled. I would then have the “correct” (meaning something they would agree with) interpretation of our faith.

Those readers are heavy in quoting the Holy Book and hadith but are woefully inadequate on applying those lessons in addressing the issues I had raised. Quoting is one thing, applying the principles another. Their strategy seems to be that if you cannot rationally discuss the issues, then the next best thing would be to overwhelm those who disagree with you with religious quotations.  They cannot comprehend that others could have different interpretations and that in the end, we must make up our own minds based on those teachings and our real-life experiences.

One reader sent me the name of his favorite alim, suggesting that I should consult him. He was befuddled when I replied that I am aware of his favorite alim’s views, and no, having read and listen to others, I have a different take from that of his favorite scholar. Another reader had a touching concern that I would not enter Heaven if I were to continue professing my views!  Touching!

Those who disagree with me were in fact saying this:  They and they alone know exactly what Allah had told the Holy Prophet, and that those who disagree with them are “misled.” They have little tolerance for divergent views. Their arguments could be reduced thus:  “My ulama (or Imam, scholar, etc.) are more correct (more pious, religious, etc.) than yours!”

One of the privileges of living in America is that with the freedom and diversity here, I am exposed to a wide variety of Islamic thoughts and viewpoints. There is no government-sanctioned religious council censoring books and ideas. We practice and live this openness and tolerance in our own little mosque here in California.  I believe that if we Muslims can get along with our fellow Muslims and tolerate the differences and variations in our peripheral beliefs and practices, then we are more likely to get along with non-Muslims. That would only bring goodwill.

A supportive reader wrote that my approach to Islam is much more difficult because it forces us to examine our core beliefs. He added, “Contrary to popular belief, the height of Islamic civilization corresponded to a period when Islam was open to ideas from outside, and variations in interpretations.”

Muslim leaders – intellectual, political, and religious – would do well to encourage their followers to believe that there is no one single “correct” interpretation of Islam that would serve us everywhere, and at all times. Human society continues to evolve; it is much too complex for us to have unanimity of views and opinions. While we all subscribe to the tenets of our faith, we should expect and indeed welcome diversity in viewpoints and interpretations. We can do without the certitude that often is nothing more than a camouflage for intolerance. Muslim unity does not mean Muslim unanimity. The ummah is not a flock of sheep to be led blindly by a shepherd.

The prevailing sentiment among Malays, shared by leaders and followers alike, is that if only we would return to the “true and original” form of Islam expressed as they see it in the Quran and hadith, then our ummah would be one happy and united family. And all our problems would then magically disappear!

Even those early pious Muslims close to and taught by the Prophet could not agree as to who would be his rightful successor. That early difference led to the irreversible split of the faith, the followers of each sect invoking the very words of the Prophet in justifying their actions.

This is the continuing tragedy. It is such inconsequential differences at the periphery upon which endless wars had been fought, with millions killed and maimed, with each side self-righteously defending their own “true” and “faithful” interpretation of the faith.




Sunday, January 24, 2021

Muslims In The Era of Globalization 3/5


Muslims In The Era Of Globalization

M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.blogspot.com)

Presented At The Muslim Students Association, Stanford University, February 14, 2003


Third of Five Parts


Aga Khan Versus Osama Bin Ladin:  Contrasts In Muslim Leadership

The dilemma facing Muslims today can be captured by comparing and contrasting two leading personalities in Islam. Both are (or was with one of them) fabulously wealthy, been exposed to the ways of the West, and inspired masses of dedicated followers. What they do or did with their wealth and talent reveal as much about themselves and their followers as well as the state of our faith. I refer to the Aga Khan and Osama Bin Ladin.

The Aga Khan is the spiritual leader of the 15 million Ismaili Muslims worldwide. He uses his vast wealth to build schools (especially for girls), universities, and hospitals, as well as bridging the gulf with the West. Osama Bin Ladin was equally wealthy and with an even larger number of ardent followers. His use of his considerable wealth and talent could not be more different. Who is the better or truer reflection of our Islamic faith? Of even more importance, who would lead us to a better world?

The Aga Khan legacy includes the thousands of doctors and nurses his institutions had trained, and the hospitals and schools he had built. Osama Bin Ladin’s corpse on the other hand was dumped somewhere in the Indian Ocean, his final “charity” towards the sharks in those waters. On land, the destructions his blind followers had wrecked are still evident to this day. Muslims should have no difficulty in determining which trajectory is closer to the Quranic “straight path” or who is the better or truer reflection of our Islamic faith.

The great Malay philosopher and alim, Hamka, once said that Allah has given us two books of revelations. One is open, the same Book of Revelations He had given to all His great prophets beginning with Adam and ending with Muhammad (may Allah bless their souls). For Muslims, that is the Quran as we know it today.  The other book is closed – this grand and wonderful expanding universe. We have the same obligation to learn this second Quran as the first. Scientists exploring the universe beyond and within elucidating the secrets of nature are doing this.

Today’s Muslims ignore this second Quran; we leave that to the West. Early Muslims did not, and they brought the faith and fellow believers to great heights. They knew the importance of both Qurans. They did not have the arrogance to presume one Quran is superior to the other, nor were they consumed with the current Muslim scholars’ puerile obsession with the “Islamization of knowledge.”

While early Muslims were blessed in that the first Quran was revealed in their native language, they did not hesitate in learning from the advanced civilizations of the time – the Greeks and Romans – to better understand the second Quran. Today’s Muslims should do likewise; emulate our earlier brethren by also learning from the advanced civilization of our time – the West.

When we Muslims master both Qurans, only then would we regain our rightful place in Allah’s universe.

Creatively managed, Malaysia’s plurality is an asset, not a liability; carelessly handled and it could be the nation’s undoing. A significant non-Muslim presence would insure that Islam in Malaysia remains the tolerant variety, true to its original version. An extremist breed of the Taliban brand could never gain a foothold in Malaysia, at least not through the legitimate political process.

The pressing issue for the ummah today is how to make Muslims competitive to meet global challenges and thus make our rightful contributions to benefit our fellow human beings. Today the wealth of a nation resides not with its natural resources, geographic attributes, or strategic location, rather with its people. As the UNDP Report puts it, “People are the real wealth of nations.” Likewise, the strength of an ummah depends on its people. The twin pillars of enhancing and strengthening human capital are education and health. Yet in the Muslim world today the military budgets dwarf the total combined spending on education and health.

We should maximize and enhance the use of all our human resources. We must not arbitrarily deny – based on sex, ethnicity, or traditional roles – anyone from developing to the maximum his or her God-given talent. Yet in many parts of the ummah today, girls are denied their right to education, and women their basic rights.

Ibn Khaldun in his Muqaddimmah (An Introduction [to the Study of History]) referred to asibayah (group consciousness) as an important element for societal development. Today’s social scientist has a comparable concept:  social capital. This is a particular challenge for plural societies as the traditional “radius of trust” rarely extends beyond the family and clan members. Muslims must extend their radius of trust beyond to the greater community of Muslims and of the world.

If Muslims would emulate and not hate the West, learn from the lessons of our own rich traditions, tolerate if not celebrate the differences amongst us, and develop our greatest asset – our people – then we would be on our way to become a developed society.

Next: Part Four of Five:  Readers’ Responses I/II



Sunday, January 17, 2021


Muslims In The Era Of Globalization

M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.blogspot.com)

Presented At The Muslim Students Association, Stanford University, February 14, 2003

[Slightly updated]

Second of Five Parts

Culture As A Major Determinant Of A Society’s Fate

There are three cultural values that are relevant here and which we should prize:  The ability or more importantly the willingness to learn from others; to tolerate if not celebrate and embrace the differences amongst us; and to appreciate that the most important asset of a society is its people.

My thesis is that there is much that the West generally and America specifically that is doing right and thus worthy of our emulation. These include representative government with a system of checks and balances; commitment to civil society, and with that, respect for personal dignity and liberty; tolerance for diversity; and commitment to capitalism and free enterprise.

We should not be surprised that that the ideals celebrated in the West are also what we cherish in Islam. Free enterprise, today embraced by the West, is very much an Islamic tradition, and had proven successful in bringing the greatest prosperity to the largest number of people. The fact that Communist China has broken that record recently does not detract from that achievement.

There is no virtue in poverty. Unlike in the Bible, the Qur’an does not have the equivalent refrain of the “the poor shall inherit the earth!” or other verses aggrandizing the poor and poverty. On the contrary, Islam encourages the acquisition of wealth. Zakat (tithe) is a central tenet of Islam. Before we can pay zakat, we must first have wealth. The acquisition of wealth is thus central to the Islamic faith so that we could fulfill this important obligation of zakat. If you are destitute you cannot give zakat; you would instead be the recipient. There is nothing meritorious in that.

Malays have a saying, kemiskinan mendakati kefukuran (Poverty invites impiety). We are more likely to rob, murder, and otherwise engage in sinful activities when we are poor and desperate. Anyone who doubts the truth of this ancient wisdom need only visit poverty-stricken Indonesia. To Islam, anyone who alleviates poverty is doing dakwah (missionary work) of the highest order. An entrepreneur is held in high esteem in Islam precisely because of the public good he does in providing goods and services to the community. An employer is held in similar high regards because she is providing an income for someone. Equally important, through the job he or she can make a meaningful contribution to society, quite apart from enhancing that individual’s sense of esteem and self-worth, far more than simply dispensing charity.

Islam, like globalization, transcends tribes, race, or geography. The concept of nation-state is alien in Islam. There were no visas, passports, export permits, and import quotas in Islam. Unlike in early Islam, today’s version of globalizations till restricts the free flow of people. Muslims therefore should have little difficulty adapting to and embracing globalization.

We must not only tolerate but also more importantly celebrate diversity. As stated in the Qur’an, this is part of Allah’s grand design. If Muslims can accept differences amongst us without resorting to excommunicating each other or labelling each other kafir, then we are more likely to get along with each other, and in turn with non-Muslims. Muslim unity does not mean Muslim unanimity. We must have a Jeffersonian generosity – every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.

There is much that we can learn from Islam’s own rich history and traditions. The Islamic civilization would not have reached its zenith if not for Islam’s sterling ideals and values. At the same time, we should study why such a grand and glorious empire unraveled. We should go back to our Qur’an and discover those enduring values so that we could adapt them for our present dilemmas.

The dilemma facing Muslims today can be encapsulated by comparing two leading personalities in Islam who are (or was with one of them) widely viewed as heroes and leaders. Both are fabulously wealthy, been exposed to the ways of the West, and inspired masses of dedicated followers. What they do or did with their wealth and talents reveals as much about themselves and their followers as well as the state of our faith. I refer to the Aga Khan and Osama Bin Ladin.


Next:  Third of Five Parts:  The Aga Khan Versus Osama Bin Ladin:  As Study of Contrasts

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Muslim In The Era Of Globalization


Muslims In The Era Of Globalization

M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.blogspot.com)

Presented At The Muslim Students Association, Stanford University, February 14, 2003

[Slightly updated]

First of Five Parts

Throughout the world and at all times there have been differences in the cultural and socioeconomic development of societies. Today the West enjoys unprecedented wealth, freedom, and material wellbeing while much of the rest of the world, including the bulk of the Muslim ummah, is mired in abject poverty, with little dignity and even much less freedom. This has not always been the case. There was a time when the Islamic world was the beacon of civilization while what we know today as the West was still in the Dark Ages.

            These differences are observed not only between but also within societies. In Malaysia, these socioeconomic cleavages also parallel racial lines, making for a potentially volatile mix.  These inequities are the result of man, and not the will of God. The important corollary to that is these factors can be altered. If I believe that everything is predestined – the will of God – then we might as well end the discussion. No further enquiry is warranted or necessary.

The various theories to explain the fate of human societies revolve around three main themes:  biology, geography, and culture. The first two are immutable; there is nothing that can be done to a society’s biological or geographical attributes. Culture on the other hand can and does change.

The popularity of the various theories varies with time and the dominant society of the time. In the heyday of imperialism, biology took center stage. The Europeans then believed that they were divinely ordained to rule over the rest of the world.  Thus the “white man’s burden” mentality. Perversely, the Mahathirs and Lee Kuan Yews of today are still favoring this theory.

Later, with the discovery of valuable natural resources and the importance of strategic locations on trade routes, geography was destiny. The current favorite is culture, that is, there is something in the value system of a society that predisposes it to develop or conversely, impedes its progress.

All these factors are of course related, but for the purpose of discussion I will address them separately. What can poor nations do today so they too can be counted among the developed? My discussion centers primarily on Malaysia, but my arguments could also extend to the wider Muslim world.

As we cannot alter biology or geography, discussions on both topics would be merely academic. Besides, the stark differences between the North and South Koreans would disabuse one from emphasizing biology. As for geography, the success of landlocked Switzerland and the backwardness of such-richly endowed countries like Brunei and Saudi Arabia are ready examples of geography’s limitations. This is not to dismiss geography, rather to put it in proper perspective. Singapore leaders brag ad nauseam on how they have achieved much despite less-than-favorable geography. This claim is at best disingenuous. That island state is blessed with a deep, natural harbor and being strategically located on an important maritime trade route. As real estate people tell us, location is everything.

Which brings me to the third element – culture.


Next:  Second of Five Parts:  Culture As A Major Determinant

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Progressive Versus Static Cultures


By M.BAKRI MUSA (www.bakrimusa.blogspot.com)

From the author’s Malaysia In The Era of Globalization (2002)


In 1999, Harvard’s Academy for International and Area Studies convened a symposium whose proceedings were published in a book, Culture Matters:  How Values Shape Human Progress.


As expected, the contributors were committed to the creed that cultural factors shape human development. To their critics however, they have made culture a socially acceptable substitute for race and biology. That notwithstanding, there is much we can do to ameliorate or negate cultural elements that impede progress and encourage those that facilitate it. Consider the Koreans; same biology and culture. Today, a few generations later, the difference between them is phenomenal.


Cultures are either progressive or static. Time orientation, with its emphasis on the future, is one trait of a progressive society. That future must not be too far ahead as in the Hereafter (the preoccupation of medieval Christians and today’s Muslims), rather foreseeable ones in this temporal world. With that comes planning and associated savings, frugality, and other positive values that are conducive to economic growth. Societies with static culture have little time orientation, no concept of the future, and thus little need for planning. They do not value time, the manana culture encapsulated thus:  why do today what can wait till tomorrow.


Other attributes of a progressive society include emphasis on rationality instead of symbolism. Authority in progressive societies resides in the law and its institutions, not individual leaders. Members of a progressive society view the world with optimism. They revere life as God’s most precious gift, and use it to contribute to their fellow humans. Those of a static society consider the world as a temporary abode and look upon life pessimistically.


Members of a progressive society believe in their own ability; those in static societies believe theirs is predestined. Education in a progressive society liberates citizens and develops their critical thinking; in static societies it is for indoctrination, to mold citizens into preconceived patterns.


Those aside, progress depends less on what a nation has, rather on how it uses its resources, especially its human resources. Classical economists write about comparative advantages; today the decisive factor is competitive advantage. America despite its high labor and other costs produce rice that cost customers much less than those produced in India or Thailand because American farmers are so much more productive.


The role of culture cannot be simplistically reduced to repeating the clichés on the importance of hard work, frugality, savings, and education. Indian farmers are much more hardworking than American ones, but Indian farmers remain poor. Similarly with education; India has millions of college graduates but they ended up as well-educated petition writers and taxi drivers. Education has limited potential if it does not emphasize critical thinking and language skills, as well as mathematics and the sciences, or if the system denigrates vocational and technical training.


Likewise with savings; at one time frugality and high savings rate helped Japan become an economic power. Today those same admirable qualities are choking her economic recovery by dampening consumer demands.


To Harvard’s Michael Porter, it is the subset of economic culture (beliefs, attitudes, and values) that bear on economic activities of individuals, organizations, and institutions that are pertinent. Those may be either productivity-enhancing or conversely, productivity-eroding.


An important invention of Western civilization is the clock. It enables one to keep precise track of time. That however, is only valued in a time-orientated society. In a manana culture, it would be useless.


To ancient Arabs, clocks and timepieces were valued for their ornamental values. The information given were of little relevance. When told it was 5 PM, their immediate response was, “Is that before or after Asar (late afternoon) prayers?” Their day revolved around prayer times, not the face of a clock. Today’s Arabs with their “decadent” Western values as the importance of time, would instead ask, “What time is Asar prayers?”


Once in Malaysia I was waiting for a boat to take me to a village across the river. Tired of waiting, I enquired when the next boat would arrive. That triggered immediate suspicion on everyone. Obviously I was a stranger to ask such a silly question. What do you mean by what time the next boat will arrive? It arrives when it arrives! To those villagers, time was meaningless. Only tourists slumming about would want to know when the next boat would arrive!


Attitude towards work is instructive. In progressive cultures work is treasured and regarded as creative and central to one’s life. It is valued intrinsically as a form of self-expression. The culture also rewards productive and creative endeavors. With static cultures, work is disparaged, a burden, to be done by the lowest members of society. Status is measured by how far one is detached from work of any kind. In ancient China, the mark of high status was clean, callus-free hands with long fingernails.


Yet another feature of a progressive society is its attitude and receptiveness to learning and new ideas. There is a curiosity to discover and explore the world beyond and within. Ancient Muslims had those attributes; they had no hesitation in learning from the polytheistic Greeks. That was the Golden Age of Islam. The success of contemporary East Asian societies is due to this devotion to learning. With learning comes the value of merit. Static societies do not value learning or merit. Caste, family connections, and tribal links determine one’s fate, not merit.


Ibn Khaldun’s asibayah (social capital) is another attribute. In static culture, trust and identification rarely extend beyond family and clan. This narrow “radius of trust” predisposes to nepotism and tribalism. Charity does not extend beyond blood ties. In progressive cultures the radius of trust extends far beyond. Venerable American companies as Apple, Coca Cola, and Microsoft have no qualms having immigrants as their Chief Executive.


Religion is far more significant in static societies. If one were to plot influence of formal religion against economic development, there is a definite inverse correlation. Islam has Iran and Afghanistan; Catholics, the Philippines and Latin America.


Members of progressive societies are not less religious when measured by such criteria as generosity and tolerance. Secular status is not a prerequisite for progress; atheistic communism would disabuse one of such a notion. Instead, the heavy emphasis on formal religion, with its preoccupation with the afterlife, is a drag.


John Calvin emancipated Medieval Christians with his novel interpretation of the faith. To him, God gives a preview on whom He would favor in the Hereafter. With that, Christians worked hard; temporal success was seen to reflect subsequent glory in the Hereafter. Islam, in theory, is spared that. Zakat (tithe) is mandatory for Muslims. You must have wealth to give zakat.


The role of culture may be encapsulated thus:  It helps steer its members into becoming either producers or takers, and that in turn would determine whether that society progresses or remains static.